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The History of the Great American Drive-In

Bill Wilson

For millions of Americans, they were either a place for wholesome family entertainment or dens of iniquity. For teens and young adults, they were the ultimate dating spots, complete with horror movies, popcorn, and plenty of “snuggling” room. “They” are drive-ins, and they occupy a well-deserved place in United States popular culture.

The drive-in was the brainchild of New Jersey entrepreneur and chemical magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., who developed the concept in the early 1930s. These movie theaters were the perfect place for people surviving the Great Depression to escape their troubles for a few hours. Hollingshead received a patent for the concept in 1932 and set up the first drive-in theater in Pennsauken, NJ in June of 1933. The idea was used as a model across the country, and hundreds of drive-ins popped up during the 1930s.

The original drive-ins suffered from acoustic problems. The only speakers were mounted near the screen, which caused attendees in the rear of the lot to have trouble hearing. This issue was solved in 1941, when RCA introduced a system that allowed each car to have its own private speaker.

B&W Drive-In Theater

The period during the 1950s and early 60s was the golden era of drive-ins, with over 4,000 operating across the country. Families could bring the smallest kids and not worry about disturbing other patrons. Mischief-prone teenagers could smuggle in alcohol as well as a few extra friends by hiding them in the trunk. Couples could make out while pretending to watch the film.  In many cases the movie was simply background noise to the real action taking place.

By the late 60s the drive-ins were on their way out. One reason was the inherent limits on how many showings a drive-in could offer per day; in the summer it often doesn’t get dark until nearly 10 PM local time. Some innovators tried setting up giant tents for customers to park in, but this didn’t work out too well. During the 1970s the reputation of drive-ins plummeted, as many of them began showing porn, in a desperate attempt to lure in customers. Naturally, law enforcement wasn’t overly fond of this new business strategy.

Today a handful of drive-ins still exist. You can find the nearest one to you by visiting this site. It’s worth the trip, just to experience one of the great hallmarks of American pop history.

VIDEO: Gone in 60 Seconds Final Scene (1974)

Photo Credit: Time, inkbluesky