They may be disappearing from the landscape one-by-one, but drive-in movies certainly aren’t forgotten. Enormously popular in the 50s and 60s, there were few places that could compete with the local drive-in when it came to a great place to take a date – mainly due to the privacy that an enclosed theater just couldn’t afford. They were also popular with families, providing an affordable night out on a hot summer’s night.
The first drive-in movie opened in New Jersey in 1953, the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a man who had made a respectable fortune in the chemical industry. He conducted experiments in his driveway at home, utilizing a radio, a Kodak projector, and a white screen nailed between two trees. When he was pleased with his results, he applied for, and received, a patent.
His idea caught on, and soon, outdoor theaters were popping up all over the United States. In 1941, RCA developed the speaker system most remember from the early days, which offered individual volume controls and proved a vast improvement over the speaker towers previously in use (which were loud, and delivered the sound with a noticeable delay).
By the 60s, there were literally thousands of drive-in theaters dotting America’s landscape. Most included a better-stocked snack bar than your typical theater, complete with hamburgers, pizza, etc. There were usually playgrounds, which served to diminish some of that sugar-fueled energy from the youngsters, who would often fall asleep later in the backseat. Many parents, aware of this, dressed their kids in pajamas for the occasion.
As quite a few drive-ins charged by the carload, this proved to be an inexpensive form of weekend entertainment, especially since most places would show a double-feature, complete with a handy intermission so that the whole gang could make a visit to the snack bar, a memorable place in its own right.
Towards the end of the 70s, the drive-ins scattered across America began to shut their doors, partly due to a less-than-wholesome reputation they had earned over the years, partly because indoor theaters began making improvements to their sound systems, but mostly because of the vast real-estate they consumed. Today, most states only have a handful still in existence, often using the space for swap-meets during the daytime.
Have an urge to relive those drive-in days of yesteryear? Over at driveinmovie.com, there is a wonderful resource that allows one to look up the locations of existing drive-in theaters across the US.
When is the last time you visited a drive-in? What movies do you best remember watching at the drive-in? Did you even watch the movie? Share your memories of these disappearing icons with all of us at Retroland as we fondly remember the drive-in.