Today drive-in theatres are relatively rare. In fact, there are a few entire states that do not have even one drive-in theatre. Those that still do have only a few. This was not always the case. For a time in the 20th Centuries most Americans lived near at least one drive-in theatre, and often more than one. For a time drive-in theatres were a popular choice for entertainment for families and even those going on dates. It was 80 years ago today that the first drive-in theatre opened.
The drive-in theatre was the brain child of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Camden, New Jersey. It was in the early Thirties that he started experimenting with showing films outside. He nailed a screen between two trees in his yard and placed a radio behind the screen. He then placed a a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. After several such experiments he developed an idea that would make drive-in theatres feasible. It was 6 August 1932 that he applied for a patent for his idea of a drive-in theatre. It was on 16 May 1933 that he was awarded the patent, U.S. Patent 1,909,537.
The Automobile Movie Theatre opened on 6 May 1933 at Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. The screen was 40 by 50 foot and the theatre could fit 400 cars. The first film shown at the first ever drive-in theatre was the 1932 Adolph Menjou feature Wife Beware. Although it was the first drive-in theatre, the Automobile Movie Theatre would not last. It closed after three years of operation. Despite this the idea of the drive-in theatre quickly caught on. In 1934 several more drive-in theatres opened in such diverse places as Orefield, Pennsylvania; Gavelston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Weymouth, Massachusetts. Even more drive-in theatres would open in coming years.
These early drive-ins did not necessarily provide an ideal viewing experience. At the original drive-in, the Automobile Movie Theatre, the speakers were mounted right beside the screen. The end result is that often those at the back of the theatre would have difficulty hearing anything, not to mention the fact that anyone living near the theatre could hear it as well. Fortunately, in 1941 RCA came out with the in-car speaker with individual volume control. It would not be long before other companies would follow suit. Needless to say,t his greatly improved the drive-in theatre experience.
It would be following World War II that drive-in theatres really began to take off. In 1958 alone there were over 4000 drive-in theatres across the United States. At their height drive-in theatres often offered things that one would never find in an indoor cinema. Many drive-in theatres had full fledged restaurants that offered more than usual movie concessions, serving up hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and other food as well. Many drive-in theatres also had playgrounds complete with swing sets, slides, and merry-go-rounds. A very few even had petting zoos.
In the mid to late 20th Century most drive-in theatres showed somewhat different fare than many indoor cinemas did. In fact, B-movies comprised so much of what they typical drive-in theatre showed that the terms "drive-in movie" and "B-movie" became nearly synonymous. In 1956 it would have been highly unlikely for one to see The Ten Commandments at a drive-in, although one probably could see Hot Rod Girl or The Gamma People. Although for many today the words "drive-in theatre" bring to mind sci-fi monster movies and biker films, the types of movies shown by drive-in theatres did change over time. As the audiences for drive-in theatres shrank in the Seventies, many drive-ins took to showing outright exploitation films and even pornographic movies to remain afloat.
There were several reasons for the drive-in theatre's decline. The gas crises of the Seventies would reduce car usage in the United States, which naturally had an adverse effect on attendance at drive-in theatres. The growth of cable television and VCR ownership in the late Seventies and well into the Eighties would take a further toll on drive-in theatres. Drive-in theatres would further be hurt by the emergences of cineplexes and mall cinemas. By 1997 there were only around 825 drive-in theatres in the United States. In 2011 that number would be down to around 606 drive-in theatres.
Today only a few communities have a drive-in theatre relatively nearby. I am lucky enough to live near one, the Moberly Five and Drive located in Moberly, Missouri. The Moberly Drive-In is actually historic in a way. It had actually closed in 1985 due to declining audiences. In the late Nineties not only was the drive-in reopened, but a cineplex was built on the site as well. Not only is the Moberly Five and Drive then one of the few drive-in theatres to come back from the dead, but it is also the first instance of a cineplex being built with the drive-in theatre as it focus.
The drive-in theatre offered a unique experience for movie goers, one that was very different from that to be found at an indoor cinema. At many drive-in theatres one could practically eat dinner while watching the movie, ordering hamburgers, fries, and drinks at the drive-in's restaurant. Drive-in also offered viewers a bit more freedom in their behaviour. Things that might be considered unacceptable in an indoor cinema (such as heckling the movie) were somewhat more acceptable at a drive-in theatre. What is more, because of the in-car speakers, one would not be disturbed by such behaviour on the part of one's neighbours as he or she would in an indoor theatre.
Sadly, America's remaining drive-in theatres are currently facing another crisis. Most theatres are converting from traditional movie projection to digital projection, a move which is very costly to make. Those drive-in theatres that cannot make the transition will most likely close in the coming years. As few drive-in theatres as there are now, there will likely be even fewer in 2023. Regardless, for many the drive-in theatre will remain a fond memory and for many others one of the defining phenomena of the mid to late 20th Century.