This week marks the 78th anniversary of a cinematic wonder that remains an all-time favorite for us here at E3 Spark Plugs. On June 6th 1933, the first drive in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, billing itself as a kid-friendly flicker venue.
“The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” read the slogan for the experimental venue created by Richard Hollingshead, a young sales manager at his dad’s Whiz Auto Products. Hollingshead was sure that he could find a way to combine his two loves – cars and moving pictures – into a profitable venture. So, he set about perfecting his idea for an open-air movie theater where patrons could enjoy films from the comfort of their own cars.
We figure Hollingshead’s due diligence likely came much to the chagrin of his neighbors. His experimentation involved a 1928 Kodak projector mounted on the hood of his car and projecting images on to a large screen nailed to trees in his backyard. Sound came from a radio placed behind the screen with the volume jacked all the way up so as to reach the cars in the back row. Hollingshead subjected his beta drive-in to strenuous testing. He lined up rows of cars, moved them, then rolled them onto blocks and ramps and lined them up again and again and again until he found just the right staggered pattern that allowed for a great view of the screen from every patron’s dashboard or hood. He ran lawn sprinklers to test his idea against rain and other weather conditions.
Finally, on May 16, 1933, Hollingshead’s dogged determination was rewarded with U.S. Patent # 1,909,537. Less than a month later, he opened America’s first drive-in theater on Camden’s Crescent Boulevard with a $30,000 investment, charging a quarter a car and an additional quarter for each person. With that, an era was born.
By the late 1950s, upwards of 4,000 drive-in theaters dotted the nation – by this time featuring the in-car speakers that delivered sound right to patron’s vehicles. The peak lasted through the 1960s and developed a particularly solid audience with lovers of the Blaxploitation and cult fiction / grind flicks of the 1970s, though mainstream patronage had begun to decline. Drive-in owners supplemented incomes by inviting musical acts, petting zoos and traveling evangelical preachers. Many doubled as open-air churches on Sunday mornings. But weather remained a dogged problem throughout the life of a theater, especially those in areas where it snowed in the winter or experienced heavy seasonal rains. Real estate prices continued to rise; daylight savings time stole hours of darkness; and home entertainment options like VCRs, introduced for home use in the 1970s, forced hundreds of drive-in theaters to go dark.
Today, a few hundred drive-in theaters continue to operate in the U.S., primarily showing family-friendly films. Do you still patronize a drive-in theater or have a favorite drive-in theater memory? E3 Spark Plugs wants to know. Leave us a comment our blog or Facebook page. And enjoy our gallery of great drive-in pics.