News Culture

The First Drive-In Theater Opened 83 Years Ago Today

We celebrate some near-dead theater technology with a trove of pictures from its heyday.

In one of the best machine-gun-quick exchanges from 30 Rock, conniving executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is quizzing aging (aged?) blonde starlet Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) on the cultural milestones of her supposed age, 29. He wrings from her the (well practiced) dates of her first kiss and high school graduation and prom theme, until the final question: at what movie did she lose her virginity? The answer: “Arachnophobia.” The follow-up question: theater or drive-in? Jenna, after a studied pause, feigns naïveté: “…what’s a drive-in?”

In fact, a truly young person probably wouldn’t even know the name of that relic of the early-to-mid-twentieth century, when folks would pay less than a dollar to park their cars in front of a 100-foot screen, tune the radio dial to whatever station the soundtrack was broadcasting on (or turn on the semi-portable speaker), and snuggle in. The first domestic drive in opened 83 years ago today in Camden, New Jersey, just off of Crescent Boulevard. Richard Hollingshead, son of the purveyor of a line of automotive products, originally drew up the concept after his mother complained how difficult it was to find comfort in a standard theater seat. Why not let people wallow happily in their own cars?

Hollingshead patented the idea and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. in 1933 for $30,000. At $0.25 per person or $1 per car, he found great success. In 1949, when the patent expired, similar theaters were set up all around the country, peaking in the early Sixties, when the USA boasted over 5,000 drive-ins. Today, the higher costs of suburban real estate and the availability of streaming has cut sharply into the business model, leaving fewer than 500 drive-ins in operation. In celebration, and maybe in early memoriam, here’s a photographic look back at the days when thousands of Americans took in the latest B-movies from behind a dashboard.

Cars arrive and depart for the start of one movie and end of another on the final night at the Naples Drive-In, Sunday, April 30, 2006, in Naples, Fla. The outdoor theater showed its last movies and closed for good to make way for a housing development. About 130 cars drove in Sunday night after 400 came Saturday night to see the double feature “The Wild” and “Scary Movie 4.”, AP Photo/Naples Daily News, Tracy Boulian
The entrance of the Winchester Drive-In Theatre in Oklahoma City, Okla., is shown July 17, 2007., AP Photo/The Journal Record, Jennifer Pitts
Enjoying a night at the Valley 6 Drive-In in Auburn, Wash., in the back of their pick-up truck are Kim Slater, far right, and her two children Karli (6) and Shae (8), Maria Seesz, second from right, Slater's sister Kelly Pratt, center, and her daughters Jordan (12), Emily (10) and son Justin (9) sitting on the back side rail of the truck Wednesday night, Aug. 11, 2004. Drive-ins are entertainment relics, steadily losing customers to indoor theaters with earsplitting sound systems and cushy stadium seats. They also are gold mines for the future. Developers want to demolish them for some of the last large chunks of buildable land in South Sound cities, including Auburn and Kent., AP Photo/The News Tribune, Russ Carmack
Drive-in movie screens across North Carolina wait to come alive each night as families, dating teens and old faithfuls gather for an evening’s entertainment at Greensboro, N.C., on Oct. 29, 1975., AP Photo
On a summer night in a pastoral field north of Allentown, Pa., cars form rows at dusk to enjoy film in the open air at Shankweiler's Drive-In on August 10, 1993. This summer, the drive-in theater, a uniquely American institution turns 60 in a world that has largely passed it by. The villans: Mall multiplex theaters, televisions, videocassette recorders and rising suburban land prices., AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
It appears there is standing room only at the Moonlite drive-in theater in South Bend, Ind. Actually the area is jammed with new Studebaker cars awaiting shipment to dealers., AP Photo
Tom Smith, Urbana, mo., inventor, demonstrates how customers see movies on separate screens in his new Multiscope Drive-in Theater at Urbana, Missouri on August 2, 1953. The layout is in shape of wheel with projection booth in center. Image is flashed to rear of screens. Smith wont tell how projector directs image on separate beans to individual screens, but say eventually system will have screens for 150-200 cars. Advantages of new system, Smith says, are clearer images and each customers has an equally good view., AP Photo
Moviegoers enjoy the Fiesta drive-in movie theater August 10, 2000 in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The death of the drive-in has been proclaimed far and wide. In the 1960s, more than 4,000 operated in the nation, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. Today there are around 500 throughout the nation. Drive-ins originally were built on the outskirts of town, where land was inexpensive. As cities grew so did property values, and many of the theaters were razed in favor of housing developments and malls. In the late ''70s and early ''80s, competition from indoor theater multiplexes and home videos helped reduce the number even further. But some of the surviving drive-ins are making a comeback such as the Fiesta drive-in that has been running for the last 10 years., Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers
Drive in movie theatre marquee, late 1940s or early 1950s., Photo by Mark Jay Goebel/Getty Images
People watching a film at Prarthana Drive-In Beach Theater January 2000 in Chennai, India. Chennai's Prarthana Drive-In Beach Theater is the only one in southern India. Many viewers prefer to sit outside their cars in chairs that they bring along with them. Chennai has its own vigorous film industry with films made in the Tamil language., Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images
10th July 1961: 550 cars watch the film on the opening night of the first drive-in cinema in Scandinavia, situated outside Copenhagen., Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
An air-minded proprietor decided the drive-in theatre wasn’t enough in this air age, so it’s been combined with a landing strip and becomes part fly-in theatre. Here a light plane is parked behind a group of cars at the East Dennis, Mass., Drive-In Fly-In Theatre at its opening on July 16, 1949. Admission, $1 per person, is the same for movie going pilots as it is for autoists., AP Photo
People watch an unidentified movie from inside their cars at the Whitestone Bridge Drive-in Movie Theater, the Bronx, New York, June 20, 1951., Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
People watch an unidentified movie from inside their cars at the Whitestone Bridge Drive-in Movie Theater, the Bronx, New York, June 20, 1951., Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A uniformed drive-in theater attendant hands a clip-on speaker to the driver of convertible while the car's other passengers watch, New York, early 1950s., Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A woman standing next to a parked car in the middle of the road, looking up at a sign that reads, 'Drive-In Theatre'., Photo by George Enell/Getty Images