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c. 1930s-1950s

The dawn of the drive-in movie theater

You could take your date and snuggle behind the wheel

Actor Charlton Heston plays Moses with arms flung wide in the motion picture "The Ten Commandments," shown at a drive-in movie theater in 1958. (Photo by J. R. Eyerman/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Once synonymous with the teenage dream, the first full drive-in movie cinema dates back to 1933 and was patented.  It was the invention of New Jersey businessman Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr, who experimented with various versions of a drive-in theater with cars in his own driveway. 

With his patent granted, Hollingshead opened his drive-in movie theater in June 1933, offering room for 400 vehicles. He struggled to make a profit however, and sold the drive-in to another New Jersey impresario who owned a theater.  At which point, the idea began to make headway. Drive-in movie theaters started to spring up across the States—three in 1934, another in 1936, three more in 1937, and 12 in 1939. 

By the start of the sixties, 4,000 drive-ins were to be found nationwide—about a quarter of all American cinemas.  Drive-ins were not without challenges: the sound broadcast from the screen reached viewers in the back with an annoying time delay, out of sync with what was happening in the film. This was addressed first by more speakers, then by clip-on car speakers, and ultimately by broadcasting the soundtrack direct to car radios. 

In addition, revenue was limited by the need to show films only after dark. Despite experiments with massive tents, this problem was never solved.

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Yet for the patrons, the one huge plus of the drive-in was the privacy afforded by the car. As well as taking away the need to ask children to be quiet, it also offered the ideal environment for a date, with the seductive combination of entertainment, darkness and privacy, all in a confined space.

But ultimately drive-ins would pay the price for this environment, securing a reputation as places of ill-repute. Whatever the truth of this, the writing on the wall (or screen) came with the home entertainment boom of the 1970s, and the mass availability of the VCR. Decreasing revenues saw drive-ins disappear and the valuable land sold off to mall developers.

Today only a handful remain.

Line of automobiles at opening day of Drive-In Movie Theater. (Photo by Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) The Cinemotor Theater. Los Angeles, Calif.: Motoring and motion pictures achieve a happy wedding in the Drive-In Theater in Los Angeles. The theater is a parking lot with graduated tiers from which motorists seated in their cars, watch the films projected on a giant screen. Synchronized amplifiers in the front of each car make speech audible in all parts of the lot. Here’s the entrance to the unique theater, showing the cashier’s wicket, and “butcher-girl” in front.
Cars parked at Rancho Drive-In Theater with the accordion-like fulcrum arms of movie speakers reaching into each driver’s front window, which they will push back onto the central post when the movie is over. (Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Carhop with a flashlight hanging from her neck as she carries a tray of food
Some customers arriving by car at area Fly-In Drive-In Theatre. (Photo by Martha Holmes/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Cars filling lot at new Rancho Drive-In Theater at dusk before the start of the feature movie. (Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Gilmore Island, one of world’s biggest amusement centers designed for motoring customers, has its own drive-in movie theater, baseball park, football and racing stadium. (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Rear view of young couple snuggling behind the wheel of his convertible as they watch large screen action behind rows of cars at a drive-in movie theater. (Photo by J. R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A uniformed drive-in theater attendant hands a clip-on speaker to the driver of a convertible while the car’s other passengers watch, New York, early 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Full-length image of a woman standing next to a parked car in the middle of the road, looking up at a sign that reads, ‘Drive-In Theatre’. (Photo by George Enell/Getty Images)

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