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History of the Drive-In Theater

Fresh buttered popcorn funneled into retro red-striped tubs. Radio dials all tuning in to the same AM/FM station. Playgrounds crawling with pajamaed little ones who scurry back to family cars as the bigscreen illuminates. Even if you're not of the drive-in generation, you know what we're talking about. So settle in and we'll tell you all about their start.

A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart

The Very Beginning

Richard Hollingshead Jr. certainly wasn’t the first to think up the drive-in theater concept, but he was the first to patent it and capitalize on our nation’s automobile obsession (so American). A true DIYer, he tested out the scheme first in his backyard, nailing a makeshift screen to a couple of trees and placing a speaker on the hood of his car to gage how sound would travel. Pleased with his design, he filed a patent application and was granted approval in May 16, 1933.

A month later, on June 6, he opened the first official drive-in in Camden, NJ with 400 car slots positioned around a 40 by 50-foot screen. Admission ran movie-goers 25 cents a car and a head. The first movie shown was the British comedy Wives Beware – the heartwarming (we’re sure) tale of a bored husband who fakes amnesia to get away with cheating on his wife.

The Drive-In Heyday

Throughout the 30s and 40s, drive-ins were opening rapid-fire around the states. But it was in the 50s and 60s that people went especially crazy for them (see Grease for a theatrical representation), and at the industry’s peak boom, somewhere around 1958, there were roughly 4,000 theaters around the country.

With fairground-style gimmicks like concessions, petting zoos, and playgrounds they were able to pull every type of crowd – from baby boomer families with children too young (and noisy) for indoor theaters, to teens with borrowed cars and steamy date night ideas (this demographic earned drive-ins the nickname "passion pits"), and everyone in between.

For a while, drive-ins were wildly popular, but eventually, not being able to sell as many tickets as a conventional indoor theater, and not being able to convince studios to send them popular pictures began to wear on them. Ultimately, it was Hollywood moving into the home, in the form of cable TVs, VCRs and VHS tapes, paired with the raging oil crisis of ’73 – that sent drive-ins in an irreversible nosedive.

Johnny Rocket’s to the Rescue?

As of 2013, there were only 368 remaining drive-ins around the US. Catch a show at any one of them, and you’re likely to see the same decades-old intermission clips (you know the ones – the dancing hotdogs and marching Hoodsie cups). While the familiar Coco-Cola snippets have endured, drive-ins are feeling a push from the film industry to modernize and convert to digital projection (at $70,000 a screen). With scarce traditional 35-mm film options, many mom and pops find it increasingly hard to stay open.

Seemingly out of left field, retro food chain Johnny Rocket’s decided to step in as the fairy godmother of future drive-ins, partnering with USA Drive-Ins to open 200 new theaters by 2018 (and they’ll all serve JR concessions, of course).

While we wait to see how that goes, we’ll be out there showing some love to those still fighting the good fight. Check out our favorites: Newberg’s 99W Drive-In, Fort Worth’s Coyote Drive-In, the Mansfield in CT, Carthage, Missouri’s 66 Drive-in and the Milford Drive-In in NH.

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