Eighty years ago today, America's first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey.
We can credit Richard Hollingshead Jr. with inventing the first "Park-in Theater" on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. Hollingshead reportedly came up with the idea thanks to his dear mother. "His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theater seats," Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told Smithsonian. "So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard." Eventually he patented a ramp system for cars so that everyone could view the film at different heights. His theater opened on June 6, 1933 and charged 25 cents per person and 25 cents per automobile. The first film shown was the British comedy Wives Beware, directed by Fred Niblo. Hollingshead sold that theater in 1935 and opened another one.
The craze caught on — but not until the early 1940s when in-car speakers were invented, which heightened the experience. The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in, with over 4,000 theaters across the country. Audiences primarily watched B movies, since regular theaters usually had dibs on screening first-run films. And yes, there were some X-rated features shown at drive-ins. That seems awkward, but remember that drive-ins were a mecca for public makeouts and steamier shenanigans. Still, drive-ins were largely a family venture, since babies and young children could be tended to during the film without interrupting fellow viewers. Hollingshead advertised his theater with the slogan: "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are."
The home video market and other economic factors led to the decline of drive-ins. Today there are fewer than 400 in the United States — which is a larger number than we would have estimated. A 2013 study showed drive-ins make up 1.5 percent of movie screens in America, versus the 25 percent from the height of their popularity. Places like the Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre in Pennsylvania and DIY, pop-up/guerilla drive-ins keep the spirit of the times alive. There's just something magical about watching a movie in the open air that people can't still get enough of.