By Jeff Little
There have always been a number of activities tied to drive-in
theaters that have nothing to do with films. The drive-in has always
been used as a gathering place for friends, a locale providing an
excuse for enjoying the outdoors at night and, most notably, a popular
venue for young couples to…not watch movies.
The 50's encompassed the peak of success for drive-ins. And
with all that was happening there on any given night, a teenager of
that era might have even commented, "They show movies there?"
Born in 1928, the drive-in was the invention of New Jersey native
Richard M. Hollingshead. Hanging a sheet between trees in his
backyard, mounting a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and
placing a radio behind the "screen", Hollingshead started an
By 1933, Hollingshead received a patent for his innovation and on June
6, 1933, the first drive-in theater opened for business in Camden, New
Jersey. The feature attraction was Wife Beware, a little-known film
that helped launch a big idea.
At the end of the 30's, only 18 drive-in theaters existed in The
United States. By 1949, over 1,200 were operating. And by the end of
the 50's, nearly 5,000 drive-ins were up and running all over the
With some facilities boasting a capacity of up to 3,000 cars,
drive-ins thrived in the 50's. The larger automobiles of the day
comfortably seated enough people to pack the theaters with thousands
of paying customers (and many more that beat the ticket price by
hiding in the trunk).
Pony rides, boat rides, talent shows, animal shows, live music,
miniature golf and miniature trains were not uncommon as theater
owners competed for their share of the American entertainment dollar.
Attempts to draw in even the youngest of viewers were included in the
marketing scheme as many facilities included playgrounds, discount
prices and gates opening as early as 3 hours before the screening of
each evening's feature film.
Obviously desiring as much interest and income as they could possibly
glam for their outdoor enterprises, drive-in owners would often offer
carload prices, "spectacular" prizes and most anything else they could
think of to increase profitability. But nothing compared to the profit
potential of a drive-in feature that became many people's favorite
part of the outdoor movie-going experience: snacks.
The snack bar has always provided theater owners with their largest
profit margin. Being no exception, drive-ins managed to even more
effectively exploit this cash cow by offering a more varied menu than
their indoor counterparts. And even though many patrons persist in
bringing their own food to this day, few can resist the allure of
drive-in hot dogs, hamburgers and some of the most unhealthy (and
tastiest) cuisine ever consumed by humans.
But with all the things drive-ins had to offer, their heyday ended
along with the 50's. By 1960, the number of active drive-ins had
dropped 20% from its peak in 1959. And by the year 2000, only 800 were
still in existence.
Few and far between, drive-ins still exist today and are definitely
worth looking into for an evening filled with entertainment in the
great outdoors. And, yes, they show movies there.
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