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.