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The Origins of the Drive-In Theater

For starters, a bit of trivia: the inventor created the drive-in to accommodate his "rather large" mother

smithsonian.com

Drive in theater

Cars at a drive in theater in Whitestone, Queens, New York, New York. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

Today Google celebrates the opening of the first drive-in theater in 1933 with a doodle. Four years ago, Smithsonian.com celebrated the 75th birthday of the distinctly American innovation with a story about the history of drive-ins and the man who started it all, Richard Hollingshead. While the idea of watching movies outside wasn’t entirely new, explains Robin T. Reid, in the article, Hollingshead, a sales manager in his father’s auto parts company, focused the idea around the automobile. His key invention was a ramp designed for each parking space that allowed every viewer to see the screen (as shown in this diagram from an August 1933 edition of Popular Science).

Here’s an excerpt from Reid’s article detailing how Hollinghead’s idea evolved from a pair of sheets nailed between two trees to the American icon the drive-in theater is today:

“He first conceived the drive-in as the answer to a problem. ‘His mother was—how shall I say it?—rather large for indoor theater seats,’ said Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. ‘So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.’

“Hollingshead experimented for a few years before he created a ramp system for cars to park at different heights so everyone could see the screen. He patented his concept in May 1933 and opened the gates to his theater the next month.”

On June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, people paid 25 cents per car, plus 25 additional cents per person, to see the British comedy Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou and Margaret Bannerman. A year later, the second drive-in, Shankweiler’s, started in Orefield, Pennsylvania. While a few other theaters sprung up, it was not until the early 1940s, when in-car speakers hit the scene, that the concept really spread. Fast forward to 1958 and the number of drive-ins peaked at 4,063.

Their early success was relatively short-lived, however. As Reid explains:

“The indoor theaters were more flexible about scheduling… and could show one film five or six times a day instead of only at night. So to sell as many tickets as possible, the movie studios sent their first-runs to the indoor theaters. Drive-ins were left to show B movies and, eventually, X-rated ones. And being naughty helped some drive-ins survive.”

Land prices also contributed to the decline of the drive-in. As cities grew, plots of land that had formerly been on the outskirts of town suddenly became valuable. Today roughly only 400 drive-ins remain in the United States. Although, as the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association reported, there are approximately 100 more worldwide with new drive-ins popping up in China and Russia.

About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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