Remembering the Drive-In Theater

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OF ANOTHER ERA: People once flocked to drive-in theaters before it was easy to watch movies at home. Now, many theaters like this one are lonely testaments to times gone by.
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The first opened 73 years ago. Folks loved it.

At one time, drive-in theaters could be found across the nation, doing business like gangbusters. How times have changed. Nowadays, they are so few and far between, they should be on an endangered species list.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, however, folks could drive into them at dusk, watch two or three movies, short subjects, previews and commercials for local businesses. If a family was lucky, they got home before dawn.

It wasn’t always like that. When the world’s first drive-in theater opened on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, N.J., on June 6, 1933, the entire show lasted less than two hours. And there were three shows, at 8, 9:30 and 11 p.m.

‘They showed abridged versions of the movies,’ said Miriam Favorite, librarian of the Camden Country Historical Society. ‘All of the dull or uninteresting parts were omitted so they could have three shows nightly.’

‘Wife Beware,’ starring Adolph Menjou, was the first film ever shown in a drive-in theater. Each customer paid 25 cents. It was a dollar for a family. By 1933 standards, those were high prices.

According to a newspaper account published the next day, more than 600 motorists attended the first screening. And the management announced that meals would be sold at the next week’s shows.

Man behind the screens

The first drive-in was the brainchild of Richard M. Hollingshead, a Camden businessman. He got the idea while showing home movies in his driveway. (He placed a camera on a car roof and had a screen inside his garage.)

Patent No. 1,909,537 was issued for the drive-in theater in May 1933. The Automobile Theatre, as it was known, was large enough to accommodate about 500 cars on an incline that had nine rows. There were about 200 trees, from 15- to 20-feet tall, planted around the theaters to keep outsiders from seeing the movies.

There was a 40-by-50-foot screen. Sound was provided by a new loudspeaker system developed by RCA Victor. It was called ‘directional sound’ and came from speakers at the front of the theater. According to RCA Victor, movie fans 500 feet away from the big screen in the last row could hear the sound as well as those up close in the first row.

The original drive-in was advertised as a family theater. In those days, young people were not allowed to attend movies at night unless accompanied by an adult.

‘Our drive-in welcomes the entire family, regardless of the number of children,’ Hollingshead said. ‘This ensures the safety of the youngsters as they are under the watchful eyes of their parents and in the confines of the family car.’

The image of the drive-in as a family theater continued until the United States went to war in 1941. Air raids were feared, and most of the theaters closed up shop.

After the war ended, the lights went on again. But it wasn’t until Detroit began turning out a fresh supply of cars that business picked up.

When this happened, drive-ins opened in every corner of the nation. By then, individual speakers were available for each car, and heaters were available at theaters in cold climates. (In some areas, theaters closed in winter.)

The drive-ins were gold mines – but not for long. Television arrived on the scene, and families began watching flicks on the tiny screen rather than heading for the drive-in or corner movie palace.

The business suffered, and theaters, both indoor and outdoor, gradually began to close down. Smaller theaters survived. Big movie palaces, if they wanted to stay open, had to put up walls and divide themselves into two, three or four smaller theaters.

The same was true of drive-ins. Twin drive-ins replaced single ones. In some areas, they had three or four screens.

Young movie fans began to flock to drive-ins on weekends – they were a cheap date. But families started to stay away.

However, when the right films were shown – like a Disney movie – they became family theaters again. Family films, like flowers, seemed to bloom during the warm weather months when children were home from school.

Still, the competition was keen and, after awhile, everybody started to stay away from the theaters. Folks had videocassette recorders now, and renting a tape was a lot cheaper than hitting the drive-in.

Time has taken its toll. Most of the drive-ins have closed. And soon the others will be gone. In time, a night at the drive-in will be just a distant memory.