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In Brief

The Drive-In Movie: A Summer Treat for Nearly 80 Years

07 June 2012

Moviegoers packing a drive-in theater in Stephens City, Virginia (AP images)

The first drive-in movie theater was launched nearly 80 years ago in Camden, New Jersey, and by the mid–20th century, drive-in theaters had become a pop-culture phenomenon. Fewer than 400 now survive in the United States, but many Americans have fond memories of this iconic symbol from their youth.

An American-born phenomenon, the drive-in movie theater is now largely a nostalgic symbol of a golden era in mass entertainment. Drive-ins were developed by Richard Hollingshead, who wanted to invent something that combined his two interests: cars and movies.

Envisioning an open-air movie theater where patrons could watch movies from their automobiles, Hollingshead experimented in his own driveway in Camden, New Jersey, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and projecting onto a screen he had nailed to trees in his backyard. He placed a radio behind the screen for sound, and also tested ways to guard against rain and other inclement weather.

Finally, he designed the ideal spacing arrangement for a number of cars so that all would have a view of the screen.

The young entrepreneur patented his idea in May 1933, and the first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden. Customers were charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than a dollar. The idea caught on, and after Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949, drive-in theaters began popping up all across the country.

Drive-ins spiked in popularity after World War II, with some 5,000 theaters in operation during the 1950s–1960s. They became icons of American pop culture and favorite weekend destinations for U.S. families every summer. Today, fewer than 400 survive in the United States, but a guide to those remaining drive-ins can be found on the website DriveInMovie.com.

Although such theaters are unlikely to see a widespread revival, their memory lives on for many Americans who fondly recall the drive-in experience of their youth.