The drive-in theater was once an icon of entertainment but now they are nearly extinct.
The drive-in theater was invented by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Camden, New Jersey. He started experimenting with the layout for an outdoor theater in his driveway in 1932. He nailed a screen to trees, set up a projector and radio on the hood of his car, tested sound levels, and determined the best arrangement of vehicles to maximize the view. After his plan was complete he applied for a patent, which was granted in May of 1933. One month later he opened his drive-in theater in Pennsauken, New Jersey. There were 400 slots for cars and he advertised with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The concept caught on and other drive-in theaters started opening across the country.
The drive-in theater reached its peak of popularity in the 1950’s. In 1948 there were less than a thousand and ten years later there were nearly 5,000. The drive-in was very popular with families as they could bring children. And they were also the perfect setting for teenagers to go on dates. Drive-ins became bigger and started offering more than just the concessions stand. Many had playgrounds for the kids, as well as pony rides, full restaurants, petting zoos, and miniature golf. Most opened several hours early so that patrons could spend time eating and playing before the movie. The size of the theaters also grew tremendously. The two largest in the country, the Troy Drive-In of Detroit and the Panther Drive-In of Texas, both had slots for 3,000 cars. As a result of the popularity of the drive-in theater, the number of indoor movie theaters shrunk from 17,000 to 12,000 during 1948 to 1958.
From 1958 to 1963 the number of drive-in theaters dropped to a little more than 4,000 and then a slow decline continued throughout the 70’s and 80’s. This is attributed to several factors, including the price of real estate making it too expensive to operate, adoption of daylight savings time taking an hour away from night viewing time, as well as the widespread availability of color television, cable, VCRs, and video rentals.
As of 2013, there are 357 drive-in theaters still operating in the United States. But the spirit of outdoor movies has been kept alive through the “guerilla drive-in movement” in which screenings are organized and take place in public spaces such as warehouses and bridge pillars.