Fifties Facts          

They Show Movies There?

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 entertainment revolution.

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 country.

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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