Drive-In Theaters: Movie Night Under the Stars
By Donna K. Keesling
“Here the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be” said Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr. to the Camden, New Jersey Courier-Post on May 17, 1933. Hollingshead was describing one of the benefits of his soon-to-open drive-in movie theater.
Hollingshead’s theater – the first patented outdoor movie theater – was originally called the Automobile Movie Theater. It opened on June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township in Camden County, New Jersey. Patrons paid 25 cents per car, plus an additional 25 cents per person to view a British comedy film titled Wives Beware. The advertisement for the theater, printed in the Courier-Post on June 6, 1933, invited patrons to “sit in your car and enjoy talkies” in “a private theater box” with “individual driveways three times the length of your car.”
Hollingshead worked in his father’s business, an automotive products company known as Whiz Auto Products, which was established in the early part of the 20th century. Some sources state that the creation of the drive-in movie theater was motivated by Hollingshead’s desire to sell more auto products. Other sources attribute the impetus for its creation to the fact that Hollingshead’s mother was unable to sit comfortably in indoor movie theaters, and so he developed a way for people to enjoy a movie from the comfort of a spacious automobile. No matter what his true motivation was, Hollingshead developed a cultural icon that brought together two of America’s passions – automobiles and films.
Hollingshead experimented with the drive-in concept in his own yard in Riverton, New Jersey. He reportedly nailed a bed sheet between trees and put a 1928 Kodak movie projector on the hood of his car to project the film onto the sheet. The audio came from a radio placed behind the screen. He parked multiple vehicles, some with blocks under their front wheels, to determine how to position the automobiles so that everyone would be able to see the projected film. He developed a ramp system so that cars would be parked at different heights, enabling a clear view of the screen for all.
In 1932, Hollingshead applied for a patent stating that “My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theater and it relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities.” In May 1933, Hollingshead received a patent for his concept. During the seventeen years of the patent term, Hollingshead could collect royalties from anyone who built and operated a drive-in theater. Although Hollingshead had a patent, other drive-in theaters were built without owners paying licensing fees to Hollingshead. He filed a number of lawsuits for patent infringement, eventually taking his case to the Supreme Court which ruled against him.
Initially, audio was provided through speakers mounted on the screen. The sound often carried, causing people in neighboring homes to complain. In 1941, RCA developed in-car speakers, providing each automobile with its own sound system. The speakers were mounted on poles throughout the drive-in, marking each parking spot. Patrons hung the speaker on the inside of a car window. By the end of the decade, all drive-in theaters had in-car speakers, making for a much more enjoyable experience.
The drive-in theater offered families an opportunity to enjoy a film together without having to travel to a city and incur the cost of an indoor theater. Parents did not need to hire a babysitter – theater operators encouraged them to bring their children and offered playgrounds and other amusements. Going to an outdoor theater was more than just sitting in the car to watch a movie – it was a “drive-in experience.”
Some operators offered more elaborate entertainment for their patrons to enjoy before the film began, including trains that circled the theater parking lot, miniature golf courses, pony rides, and swimming pools. The Bayshore-Sunrise Drive-In in Bay Shore, New York featured a 300-foot monorail track. Small motorboats were available on a custom-built lake at the Rainbow Gardens Drive-In Theatre and Amusement Park near McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
Concession stands, where operators made most of their money, provided food and beverages before the film and during the brief intermission. Over the years, operators perfected ways of serving hundreds of patrons quickly – primarily through the use of multiple self-service lanes. Much of the extra entertainment was an effort to draw patrons to the theater’s snack bar. Authors Don and Susan Sanders described the concession stand as “the center of social activity, great food, and good times” while “its primary mission of generating money remains its most important role for drive-in owners.”
According to Jim Walsh, writing for the Courier-Post on the 80th anniversary of the drive-in theater, the industry “took off in the 1950s, fueled by the emerging car culture, the growth of suburbs, and the desire of parents to watch a film while you baby boomers slept in the back seat.” By the late 1950s, there were over 4000 drive-in theaters in the United States.
Because drive-in theaters continued to play mostly second-run films, patrons began to return to indoor theaters in the mid-1960s. Drive-in theaters lost even more customers in the 1970s. Due to the increased cost of fuel during the oil crisis, people began to buy smaller vehicles – making it less comfortable to sit in a car for hours watching a movie. Cable television and videos made it easier for people to view films from the comfort of their own homes.
Operators needed at least fifteen acres of land for a drive-in theater operation. As profits decreased and real estate values rose, many existing drive-in theater operators chose to sell their land to developers. Many simply could not make a profit with a business that only generated revenue at night.
According to information available on the National Association of Theatre Owners website, at the end of 2022 there were 533 drive-in theaters in the United States. This is down from 666 in 2002. Thirty-five years ago, there were still over 2000 drive-in theaters operating in the country.
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Orefield, Pennsylvania, the second drive-in to open in the country, advertises itself as “America’s Oldest Drive-In.” When it opened on April 15, 1934 it was called Shankweiler’s Park-In Theatre. Almost ninety years later, it is still operating and showing first-run films on a state-of-the-art digital Barco Alchemy Cinema projector.
The drive-in experience now includes a concession stand offering all types of food – including beer and wine at some theaters. Digital projection and in-car audio through an FM radio station provide a much better experience than in the early days of drive-in theaters. Although much of the elaborate entertainment is long-gone from the theaters that continue to operate, those drive-ins still provide patrons with a night of entertainment under the stars.
 Kerry Segrave, Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992), 7.
 “Camden Drive-In.” Cinema Treasures, accessed July 16, 2023, https://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8589.
 Rick Cohen, “Hollingshead’s Story,” Drive On In, Inc., accessed July 10, 2023, https://drive-ins.com/museum/richard-hollingshead-story.
 Kerry Segrave, Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992), 203.
 Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett, Cinema Under the Stars: America’s Love Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 1998), 7.
 Don and Susan Sanders, The American Drive-In Movie Theatre (Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1997), 90 – 91.
 Don and Susan Sanders, The American Drive-In Movie Theatre (Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1997), 87.
 Jim Walsh, “Drive-in theaters mark 80th anniversary,” USA Today, June 6, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2013/06/06/drive-in-movies-anniversary/2398507/.
 “The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (And Where They are Now),” New York Film Academy, May 27, 2023, https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/.
 “Number of U.S. Movie Screens,” National Association of Theatre Owners, accessed July 16, 2023, https://www.natoonline.org/data/us-movie-screens/.
 “A History of Innovation.” The Moving Picture Cinema. Accessed July 22, 2023. https://www.shankweilers.com/history.