The drive-in theater was the creation of Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard Holiingshead Jr. whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden.
In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak Projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen.
Following these experiments, he applied August 6, 1932, for a patent of his invention, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. That patent was declared invalid 17 years later by the Delaware District Court.
Hollingshead’s drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933, on Admiral Wilson Boulevard. He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The facility only operated three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states.
Early drive-in theaters had to deal with noise pollution issues. The original Hollingshead drive-in had speakers installed on the tower itself which caused a sound delay affecting patrons at the rear of the drive-in’s field. Attempts at outdoor speakers next to the vehicle did not produce satisfactory results.
In 1941, RCA introduced in-car speakers with individual volume controls which solved the noise pollution issue and provided satisfactory sound to drive-in patrons.
The drive-in’s peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates…some of my best dates of all time were at the drive-in…I won’t mention any names but you know who you are.
During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance. They ranged from small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show. Some drive-ins held religious services on Sunday morning and evening, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesday. The price was a dollar per car during “buck” nights in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the UK a pseudo-drive-in has been launched where the cars are provided by the theater. It’s sponsored by Volvo. The urban Starlite Drive-in is inside the Truman Brewery in hip East London where the urban population will get the chance to watch classic films in a fleet of convertibles served by roller-skating waitresses.
Love it…maybe it will catch on…