THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF THE DRIVE-IN MOVIE THEATER
by Tim Wing
The story of the drive-in movie theater begins with one man. That man was Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr., born on February 25, 1900, the "father" of the drive-in.
The drive-in got its humble beginnings in the driveway of Hollingshead’s Riverton, New Jersey home, at 212 Thomas Avenue. This is where his first experimentations took place. Setting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of the family car, he projected the film onto a screen he had nailed to a tree. He tested the potential hazards of foul weather by turning on his lawn sprinkler to simulate a rainstorm. His home radio sitting behind the screen to provide sound, Hollingshead sat in his car watching and listening. The car windows up or down, sprinkler on or off, he liked what he saw and heard. And with that, the drive-in’s inception was well under way.
Of course there were a great many problems to work out. But once he felt he finally had his major problems solved, Hollingshead landed the financial backing needed for his venture. His major partner was Willie Warren Smith, also of Riverton. Smith was a cousin and operator of parking lots in Camden, New York, and Philadelphia. The two men formed a company they called Park-In Theaters, Inc. As soon as his patent was granted, Hollingshead assigned it to this company. Other backers in the venture included road contractor Edward Ellis, who graded the first drive-in in exchange for company stock; and Oliver Willets, a Campbell’s Soup vice president who bought stock in the new company.
Construction did not get under way until May 16, 1933, the day the patent was officially granted. The world’s first drive-in opened on Tuesday, June 6, 1933. Most sources site Admiral Wilson Boulevard, Camden, New Jersey, as the location. When actually the theater was just over the Camden town line, from which point outward the street was called Crescent Boulevard. Pennsauken Township was the location. The theater was called the Automobile Movie Theatre. The marquee simply stated "Drive-in Theatre."
Opening night drew a full house. Many were there for free, however, as Hollingshead and Smith had distributed free passes to as many local media as they could. The first film ever shown at a drive-in was the 1932 release Wife Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou. The partners complained they were not able to obtain a first-run film from a distributor. This was due to the fear that the gate at indoor houses would be lessened. This problem would plague drive-ins forever. Many shorts accompanied the feature. Admission was twenty-five cents per person. Three or more in a car were admitted for the price of one dollar.
Initially the plan was to have three shows a night. There would be one at 8:30, 10:00, and 11:30 P.M. But in order to fit all shows in, films had to be edited. This system did not work well. Apparently the partners realized this mistake early; for after only the second night, the schedule was changed to only two shows a night. Now there would be one at 8:45 and 10:45 P.M. The program changed twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. The two men also learned early on about the difficulties in preparing a quality scheduling format. The films had to be started early enough to allow time to fit both in, but late enough to be visible against the fading sunlight of the long, hot, summer days.
The world’s first drive-in was not unlike those that would follow in the future. The basic construction and overall layout of the architecture designs were much the same, for all intents and purposes. Through careful planning, Hollingshead had worked through his initial problems with his invention, but it would still be quite some time before the drive-in really caught on and gained popularity. The precursor to the drive-in’s boom was what was called the "Postwar Surge," in the years following the war between 1945-1949. The glory days of the outdoor theater came in the 1950s, during the peak of its popularity. The success of the drive-ins at this time rivaled even that of its big brother, the traditional indoor movie house.
While the 1950s were a period of wild and expansive growth for the drive-in industry, the 1960s and early 1970s were periods of relative quiet. The 60s were a period of stagnation for the ozoners. The growth of the drive-in business began to slow. In the early 70s it becomes nearly impossible not to take notice of America’s cooling off of its loved affair wit the open-air-theater. And in the late 70s the forward climb comes to a screeching halt. This was just the calm before the storm, however. The real damage, the final blow, would come to the drive-ins in the 1980s.
During the 1980s, there were many things that helped contribute to the crash of the drive-ins. Such things as changing films, the quality and age of films, cost of property taxes on owners, changing audiences, new technologies, and of course, the attendance was drastically down —due, in fact, to many of the aforementioned reasons.
Drive-in owners still had a very hard time obtaining first run films. Property taxes on the huge lots rose. So did ticket prices. Long mistakenly thought to be the biggest audience for the drive-in, by those outside the industry, was the teenager. Operators, however, knew that while teens were a substantial part of their audience, the biggest numbers and profits had always come from the family. But in the 80s, families got smaller, there was a great decrease in the number of family films at the drive in, and there were now many more entertainment options open to everyone.
To many ozoner owners the advent of cable television, satellite dishes, even amusement parks, and especially the newer mediums of videos and the multiplexes at the local malls, were collectively the biggest killers of the drive-in. If a viewer wanted to see a movie, they could surf the movie channels on cable, go to the multiplex and have dozens to choose from, or go to the video store and pick from hundreds. And today not only do we have pay-per-view, but new digital programming with literally thousands of movies, right at your hands. These hundreds of new channels offer a large selection of movies, acted as nothing less than your own personal video store inside your home. And like they say on TV, you don’t even have to rewind, much less make a trip to the store. And now even the internet is getting in on movies. You can watch films over the internet (the World Wide Web), or even make your own, with some basic and relatively inexpensive equipment.
And the second biggest audience for drive-ins, the teenagers, have found other places to go to have sex and drink and smoke, besides the drive-in. Realistically, this was much of the draw for teenagers.
Operator Vince Ranalli of the Greentree Drive-In near Pittsburgh sums it up pretty well:
It’s a different business today. I think drive-ins have had their heyday. It’s a combination of a lot of things: cable TV, underabundance of product, not as many good pictures, loss of the family audience. It’s partly the industry’s fault. The proliferation of complexes has hurt us tremendously. It eats up a lot of product. There’s nothing left to play. Our second features are on cable before we can even get to them (Segrave, 194).
Along with he fact of newly emerging technologies, was the fact that the existing drive-ins were getting older and older, with little money to maintain, let alone upgrade and renovate. The worst of the deterioration was in the technicals of the presentation itself. The audio and video were and still are of poor quality in comparison to the multiplexes and new home entertainment systems and home theaters of today. Even when the outdoor screen is brand new, it is not very bright: it is distorted and fuzzy. And the screens are greatly affected from the adverse weather conditions they must face unprotected. The picture fades with age and lack of upkeep. With low attendance, owners were hesitant to upgrade their screens. But the problem is the industry refused to believe it was sick until it was already at death’s doorstep. They didn’t waste money on improving quality in the 1950s because it wouldn’t have been worth it, at that time. Audiences were flocking to drive-ins regardless of what films were shown, and what the presentation quality was, as long as it was average or decent.
The sad truth is that almost all authorities on the subject agree on one thing. In all likelihood, there is never going to be another drive-in movie theater built. They do just enough business to say alive, though barely breathing. We may see renovations, but these are costly enough, let alone building an entirely brand new drive-in theater. The age of the drive-in as a romantic, fun getaway from the claustrophobic multiplexes has come and gone a long, long, time ago. Even the indoor houses are staggering somewhat in the 90s and on into the next century and new millennium. Competition between emerging technologies is fierce. Drive-ins have merely become giant dinosaurs, cluttering up the landscape with their old, rotting carcasses. A few do seem to have escaped extinction for now. Though drive-ins are most definitely an endangered species, to say the least.
Everything started to unravel for the drive-in industry in the 1960s. There was a period of stagnation in the 60s and early 70s. This was followed by a steady decline in the late 70s, and which continues on to the present day. Today, the drive-in is nothing more than an ancient dinosaur. They are down to the very last of their breed. And they are a dying breed. The shakeout between 1958 and 1963 accounted for the exiting of most inefficient operators, which was caused by an over population of the ozoners. There was an over population because more people rushed into the industry to try to score a quick million.
Drive-ins today sit at the edge of extinction. The last handful may be around yet for decades. But they are finished as part of the American landscape, and no new ones will ever be built. For those still around, it is only a matter of time, before they, too, disappear, forever.
Margolis, John & Emily Gwathmey. "Ticket to Paradise–American Movie
Theatres and How We Had Fun." Little, Brown, and Company. (Boston, Toronto, London); 1991. P. 139, 144.
McKeon, Elizabeh & Linda Everett. "Cinema Under the Stars–America’s Love
Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater." Cumberlabd House. (Nashville, Tennessee); 1988. P. 41
Segrave, Kerry. "Drive-In Theaters–A History from Their Inception in 1933."
McFarland & Company, Inc. (Jefferson, North Carolina); 1992.