Inventing the Drive-In Theater

In 1931, Richard Hollingshead Jr. owned and worked in his own automotive supply store called Whiz Auto Products Company.  Always on the lookout for the next great new idea, Hollingshead noted that even though the Great Depression was in full swing, people still found money to attend movies at their local theater.  He pondered the means to combine his auto parts business with movies and dreampt of opening a deluxe gas station and auto repair shop that featured a restaurant and movies for the customers to watch while they customers waited for their car repairs to be completed.  To bring his dream to fold, Hollingshead began by experimenting with the “outdoor movie” concept (and as he progressed, the concept morphed to exclude the gas station and auto repair business).

Hollingshead tested the outdoor movie concept in the driveway of his home located at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton, New Jersey.  He placed a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car projecting the movie onto a white screen nailed to a nearby tree.  He tried various placements of speakers behind the screen in an attempt to find the right distance and volume for the soundtrack.  His experiments grew in complexity and soon he was testing the sound projection with windows in his car opened at different heights.  He even used a sprinkler to simulate rain to see how outside noises would affect the soundtrack of the movie.

Hollingshead Drive In Theater PatentHollingshead soon realized that if several cars were lined in a row, the cars in the rear would not have a clear view of the screen, even as he adjusted the distance of the screen from the ground.  To ensure the automobiles had an unobstructed view of the screen, he placed ramps on the ground and drove the cars up onto the ramps to raise the front of the car off of the ground.  He reasoned that a series of ramps placed at taller and taller heights as you got closer to the screen would solve the problem.  Soon Hollingshead was comfortable with the setup and filed a patent  for the Drive-In Movie Theater on August 6, 1932.

Cars entering an early drive in movie theaterWhile he waited for the patent application to clear, Hollingshead began promoting his novel idea and sought investors for the new project.  His cousin, Willie Warren Smith, a parking lot operator, agreed to partner with Hollingshead and the two formed Park-In Theaters Inc.  Edward Ellis, a road contractor, was offered a portion of the company’s stock in exchange for paving the lot the theater would be located in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey.  A 4th investor, Oliver Willets, an executive at Campbell’s Soup, was also allowed to provide seed money in exchange for shares of the new company’s stock.

Screen of the first Drive in Movie TheaterOn May 16, 1933, the day the patent was granted, Hollingshead began construction of the world’s first drive in theater on Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey.  Construction took three weeks at a cost of $30,000 and included a 40 foot wide by 30 foot high screen located 12 feet off the ground.  The screen was enclosed in a mammoth concrete and brick structure that could be seen from miles away.  The drive in theater lot was paved with gravel and oil to keep dust down and discourage mosquitoes. Sound was supplied by three six-foot square RCA speakers (that could be heard from miles around on clear summer nights).

Old Drive-in movie theatreOpening night was scheduled for Tuesday June 6, 1933.  The new drive in was to be known simply as “Drive-In Theater”.  Hollingshead hammered on the numerous advantages drive-ins provided over indoor theaters.  Drive-in Theaters provided patrons the option of smoking in their own cars, not having to worry about talking and disturbing other movie goers, did not have to worry about finding or paying for parking spots (theaters in the 1930’s were often located downtown where available parking was sparse) and most importantly, children could be taken and allowed to sleep in the backseat of the car while their parents enjoyed the show.

Opening night was a smashing success as 400 car loads of patrons packed the lot to see the 1932 release of Wives Beware.  Strangely, a skeptical movie industry forced Hollingshead to pay $400 for a four day rental of the movie while indoor theaters only paid $20 for an entire week.  Admission was 25¢ for each car and an additional 25¢ for each person, somewhat higher than the prevailing price at the indoor houses at the time (who were also offering double features for a lesser price).  Families arrived in droves while teenagers protested with “Down with Drive-Ins, More Work for Babysitters” signs (in the 1930’s, it was common for adults to leave their children with babysitters while they enjoyed a night out to watch a movie).  A week later Hollingshead added a concession stand to sell food before and during the show.

Weymouth Theater in the 1940'sSuccess of the first drive-in theater was short lived.  By 1936, Hollingshead was forced to close the theater in Riverton and move his operations to nearby Union, New Jersey.  Revenues were good but Hollingshead incurred significantly higher movie rental costs than the typical indoor theater which made it hard to turn a profit.  During that same year, a second theater was opened in Weymouth Massachusetts on May 6, 1936.  The owners of the Weymouth Drive-In neglected to purchase licensing rights from Hollingshead (who held the patent for the drive-in movie concept) and Hollingshead filed a patent infringement suit against them.  A settlement was reached and Weymouth Drive-In entered into a licensing agreement with Hollingshead’s Park-In Theater company.  Shortly thereafter, theaters began popping up all over the area and legal wrangling lasted for years afterward.  So many suits and countersuits were filed that Hollingshead could barely keep up with the legal battles.

One case, involving Leows Theater in the late 1930’s, made its way to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  The courts decision was stunning and crushed Hollingshead’s Park-In Company.  The court ruled that the patent, which was the basis for the licensing fees that Hollingshead collected from other drive-in theater owners, was invalid and should have never been granted in the first place.  The court’s opinion was that the outdoor theater patent was not inventive and was merely a facsimile of the layout of an indoor theater utilizing cars instead of seats.  Although a crushing blow to Hollingshead and his Park-In Company, the effect was to open the gates for further drive-in theater development.

Drive in theater speakersBy the 1940’s, community complaints concerning the noise that the drive in theaters emanated, spawned the introduction of in car speakers.  The innovation was well received by drive-in movie patrons.  By the end of 1949 there were 155 drive-ins located around the country.  When the “car culture” of the 1950’s roared into full swing, the number of drive-in theaters swelled to over 800.  By the end of the 1950’s there were over 4,000 drive in movie theaters in the United States.

Westbury Drive-In TheaterIn the 1950 post war years, Americans began to move to the suburbs and everyone owned an automobile.  And they loved their cars.  Drive ins became particularly popular in rural areas.  Parents loved drive-ins because they could take their kids.  Teenagers loved them because of the privacy they gave them and their dates.  During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance.  They ranged from small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show.  Some drive-ins held religious services on Sunday morning and evening, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesday.

This boom caused a trend toward ever-larger and more elaborate drive-ins, such as the Bel Air Drive-In in Detroit, built in 1950.  This location featured space for 2200 cars, an elaborate concession stand along with a full playground and a train ride for the kids.  Some operators put up amusement parks, boat rides, fishing ponds and added in-car heaters to remain open year-round for their patrons.  It was also during this period and into the 1960’s that the drive-in business began to expand beyond U.S. borders, with locations opening in Australia, Great Britain and Denmark among other countries.