! A History of the Drive-in Theater and Fun Facts

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History of Drive-in Theaters

Maybe one of the reasons Drive-in Movies are so much more popular in the United States than in other countries is because the drive-in movie is truly an American invention. The first true drive-in theater (as we know them today) was opened on June 6th, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Before that time, there were attempts at opening "outdoor theaters" and even some "outdoor theaters" where you could watch movies from a car. But those were done in temporary locations such as downtown streets. The first real drive-in theater was opened by a gentleman named Richard Hollingshead. Richard Hollingshead was movie fan with a connection to the automotive world as he worked at his father's automotive company which was called Whiz Auto Products.

Richard began experimenting with showing movies in the driveway of his home. He got ahold of a movie projector which he placed on the hood of his car. He tied a movie screen to some trees and put a radio behind the screen for sound. He tried several setup variations before he found what he thought was the right configuration of projector, screen, sound and spacing between cars. With that he applied for a patent for a drive-in theater in 1932 which was granted in May of 1933. Shortly thereafter in June of 1933, he opened his first drive-in which was called the Automobile Movie Theatre. His slogan for his drive-in theater was, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are." We love this slogan and think it is still true today and still one of the reasons drive-in movies are still around.

Hollingshead never made a profit with his Automobile Movie Theatre and sold it several years later to a new owner who moved it to another location. But regardless of Hollingshead's failure to make a profit, the concept of the drive-in theater had caught on and expanded rapidly. By 1940 there were over 20 drive-ins that had opened across the United States from the East Coast to the West Coast. Eventually, Hollingshead's patent was ruled invalid in 1950 and therefore anyone could open a drive-in theater without having to pay royalties to Hollingshead for his patent.

With his patent ruled invalid, drive-in numbers exploded and peaked in the late 1950's – early 1960's. During this time, which is generally considered the golden age of drive-ins, there were over 4000 drive-in theaters across the United States. But the golden age only lasted a decade or so and in the 1970's the number of drive-ins began to decline rapidly for a number of reasons.

There have been many reasons attributed to the rapid and steep decline of drive-in movies. But we believe the three biggest reasons are the move to Daylights Savings Time, the introduction of VHS movies and increasing land values and taxes. In 1966, the Uniform Time Act mandated Daylight Savings Time (DST) throughout the United States from April thru October. This meant sunset would come an hour later during the prime drive-in movie season. So in many parts of the country, drive-in movies theaters were not able to start their first movie until close to 10pm which in turn meant it would not be over until close to midnight. This was simply too late during the week for most families on which the drive-in owners had come to rely on for business. So while weekends remained busy for most, business was minimal during the week which severely cut into revenue.

While drive-ins were still coping with the conversion to DST, in the late 1970's VHS movies were introduced and rapidly gained popularity. For the first time, people were able to rent or buy movies and watch them from the privacy and comfort of their homes. And while this also hurt indoor cinemas, the effect was compounded for drive-in theaters before of the early introduction of DST.

And finally, during all of this, property values in the United States soared and urban sprawl continued. There were many drive-ins, that when originally opened, were on land at the outskirts of town that had little value. But over the years, urban sprawl enveloped land around the drive-ins and the land became increasingly valuable to a point where drive-in owners could make much more money by selling the land for development than by continuing to operate a drive-in on it. There are numerous big box stores that now sit on land once occupied by drive-in theaters.

The closures continued into the 1980's and 1990's. Then in the late 1990's and early 2000's, drive-in theaters started to make a modest comeback with several closed drive-ins being renovated and re-opened and even several new drive-ins being constructed during this time. For a period going into the 2000's, it looked as if there was going to be a Drive-in Renaissance. But then once again, the drive-ins were dealt a crippling blow. The movie industry starting converting their movies from film to digital in the early 2000's. This saved the movie industry a significant amount of money. However, it required theaters to purchase new and expensive digital projectors that can cost over $60,000. So began the phrase, "Go Digital or Go Dark" which means theaters must purchase the expensive digital projectors needed to show today's new releases or close. Many drive-in movies, especially smaller, rural theaters, closed because they could not afford to purchase the new digital equipment.

But there are still approximately 325 drive-ins theaters opened in the United States. Many have gotten creative in how to stay in operation. There are a number of large drive-ins on the West Coast, in Texas and in Florida that hold weekly Swap Meets on their lots on the weekends. The booth rental revenue they obtain from the Swap Meets helps them stay in business. They are also several drive-ins which have been kept open by charitable efforts from their local communities through fundraising drives to help them secure the funds needed to purchase digital projectors. And there are even a few drive-ins that were taken over by the local governments or local social organizations and turned into non-profits to keep them afloat. So we are hoping that with these efforts and more, we can not only keep the drive-ins we have now, but foster an environment in which more can operate profitably.