On 6 June 1933 eager motorists park their automobiles on the grounds of Park-In Theaters, the first-ever drive-in movie theater, located on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey.
Park-In Theaters–the term “drive-in” came to be widely used only later–was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden.
Their popularity soared after World War II, when Americans started having kids in droves. (Can you say “Boom”?) The drive-in offered cheap family entertainment, a place where parents could take the kids without having to shell out for a baby sitter, or worry about the little ones bothering other patrons. In fact, that was Hollingshead’s original hook: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Drive-in theaters tended toward B movies – Muscle Beach Party, Tarzan, Creature From the Black Lagoon and stuff like that – and always included a snack stand and a play area where the kids could go when they got bored. Which is what kids do.
Another feature of the early drive-in theater was the tinny sound, delivered to the car through a single, monaural speaker. As the technology improved over time – the car’s FM radio became the receiver in some cases – so did the sound.
The drive-in’s heyday lasted from the late 1950s until the mid-’60s, when nearly 5,000 theaters were operating in the United States. No cultural survey of the period would be complete without including the iconic drive-in movie theater.
Because drive-ins offered a certain amount of privacy, making out in the back seat of the car was a rite of passage for Teenus americanus, circa 1963. You could get it on in the front seat, too, if you had a column shift, or even a bench seat with four on the floor. But bucket seats? Forget it.
The rising cost of real estate was one of the factors that led to the decline of the drive-in. Especially for those theaters located in urban areas or heavily populated suburbs, the cost of doing business was becoming prohibitive. The popularity of walk-in theaters and video rentals didn’t help, either.
Nevertheless, drive-ins endure. Although fewer than 400 remain today, the industry appears to have stabilized. Those that survive often rely on additional sources of income to pay the rent, hence the popularity of drive-in-theater parking lots as flea markets, swap meets, motorcycle schools and even outdoor churches.