The First Drive-In Movie Theater

On June 6, 1933, a groundbreaking event took place that would forever change how people experienced cinema. This was the day when the first-ever drive-in movie theater opened its doors in Pennsauken, New Jersey. This new way of watching movies ushered in a new era of entertainment and set the stage for the rise of the iconic American drive-in culture.

drive-in movie theatre
Drive In Movie Theatre
Photo 75603982 © James Kirkikis |

The Birth of the Drive-In Concept

The visionary behind this revolutionary idea was Richard Hollingshead. He was a movie enthusiast working as a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden, New Jersey. He came up with the idea of drive-in theaters because his mother struggled to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats. So, Hollingshead set out to create a more accessible and comfortable movie-going experience. He envisioned an open-air theater where patrons could watch films from the comfort of their own automobiles.

Hollingshead began experimenting with different projection and sound techniques in the driveway of his own home. He mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinned a screen to some trees, and placed a radio behind the screen to provide sound. He also tested ways to protect against bad weather and came up with an ideal spacing arrangement for a number of cars to ensure that all would have an unobstructed view of the screen.

Securing the Patent and Launching the First Drive-In

After extensive experimentation and refinement, Hollingshead received a patent for his drive-in theater concept in May 1933. Less than a month later, he opened Park-In Theaters, Inc., the first-ever drive-in movie theater, with an initial investment of $30,000. The theater, located on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, New Jersey, had slots for 500 cars on a series of ramps, allowing all patrons to have a clear view of the screen.

Hollingshead advertised the drive-in as entertainment for the whole family, charging 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with a maximum group fee of one dollar. The first film shown at the Park-In Theaters was “Wives Beware,” starring Adolphe Menjou. Patrons were free to smoke, eat, and move about without bothering their fellow moviegoers, making the drive-in experience a unique and engaging one.

The Rapid Growth of Drive-In Theaters

The innovative drive-in theater concept quickly caught on. After Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949, these open-air cinemas began popping up all across the United States. One of the largest drive-in theaters was the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, New York. This drive-in theater boasted parking for 2,500 cars, a playground for children, and a full-service restaurant, all on a 28-acre lot.

Drive-in theaters initially showed mostly B-movies or less prestigious films. However, some venues also featured the same movies that were shown in regular indoor theaters. The sound quality, which was initially poor due to the use of speakers mounted on a tower near the screen, improved significantly with the introduction of the individual speaker system developed by RCA in 1941. This system allowed each car to have its own volume control.

The Golden Age of Drive-In Theaters

The popularity of drive-in theaters increased exponentially after World War II. But, their real heyday was in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, with an impressive 5,000 theaters across the country. The open-air cinemas became an iconic part of American culture, serving as a typical weekend destination for families and teenage couples who sought the privacy and freedom of drive-in theaters.

The drive-in experience was not just about watching movies; it was a social event that allowed people to enjoy a film while engaging in other activities, such as dining, socializing, and even engaging in some playful behavior. The drive-in theater became a symbol of the post-war American lifestyle, reflecting the growing affluence, mobility, and desire for leisure and entertainment.

The Decline and Resilience of Drive-In Movies

However, the golden age of drive-in theaters was not to last. Over the following decades, several factors contributed to the decline of these open-air cinemas. Real estate prices, especially in suburban areas, were on the rise, and this made it increasingly difficult for drive-in operators to maintain their large, sprawling properties. The growing popularity of indoor walk-in theaters, along with the rise of video rentals and other home entertainment options, further eroded the drive-in’s customer base.

Despite these challenges, the drive-in theater industry has shown remarkable resilience. In the face of changing times and evolving entertainment preferences, a dedicated group of drive-in enthusiasts and operators has worked tirelessly to preserve and promote this unique aspect of American culture. As of September 2021, the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association reported that 318 drive-in theaters were still operating in the United States, a slight increase from three years earlier.

The Enduring Appeal of Drive-In Movie Theaters

The appeal of drive-in theaters can be attributed to their ability to offer a nostalgic and immersive movie-going experience that is difficult to replicate in modern multiplex cinemas. The drive-in theater allows for a more relaxed and personalized viewing environment, where patrons can enjoy a film while surrounded by the comfort and familiarity of their own vehicles.

Also, drive-in theaters have adapted to changing times by embracing new technologies and programming to cater to the evolving preferences of modern audiences. Many drive-in venues now feature state-of-the-art digital projection systems, high-quality audio, and even the ability to stream content directly to patrons’ cars, ensuring that the drive-in experience remains relevant and engaging.

The Resurgence of Drive-In Theaters During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of many traditional indoor theaters, paradoxically led to a resurgence of drive-in theaters. With people seeking safe and socially distanced entertainment options, drive-in theaters experienced a surge in popularity. Pop-up drive-in venues sprouted up across the country to meet the demand.

This renewed interest in drive-in theaters not only helped to sustain the industry during a challenging time but also introduced the drive-in experience to a new generation of moviegoers.

The Future of Drive-In Theaters

As the world moves forward, the drive-in theater industry will need to continue to adapt and evolve to remain relevant and engaging. This may involve incorporating new technologies, developing innovative programming, and exploring creative partnerships and collaborations.

One potential avenue for the future of drive-in theaters is the integration of emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, to enhance the viewing experience and offer patrons a truly immersive cinematic adventure. Additionally, the drive-in theater industry may explore opportunities to diversify its offerings, incorporating live music performances, themed events, and other forms of entertainment to attract a wider audience.

Featured Photo 75603982 © James Kirkikis |

the first drive in move theatre