On 7 June 1933, the world’s first drive-in movie theatre was opened in Camden, New Jersey, USA, by Richard Hollingshead Jr. Hollingshead patented a ramp system that slightly elevated the front of the vehicle so viewers could sit back in comfort. He laid on refreshments and every gimmick imaginable.
Patrons paid $1 per car or 25 cents per person. Speakers were mounted atop the 60-foot screen but didn’t provide very good sound. It would take years to improve the sound problem at the drive-in.
By 1941 there were over 100 drive-in locations across the US and within twelve years the number had increased to 2,200 locations.
Australia followed suit (the first one in Australia opening in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood), and drive-in cinemas appeared everywhere. People enjoyed being able to go out without having to dress up.
Drive-ins did have some problems early on, including obstructed views and poor audio. These were remedied by tiering and spacing the grounds and placing individual speakers on each car window and, later, attaching a cable to the radio antennae of the car.
By 1955 there were over 4,000 drive-in theatres in operation across the USA – an all-time high.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, the drive-in became the quintessential teen hangout. Teenagers loved having a place to congregate and socialize with their friends. Drive-in theatres provided an evening of fun at an affordable price.
Television and its mass popularisation by the mid-1960s took its toll on the trade of drive-in theatres, which led the drive-ins to what many consider their darkest hour in the mid-70s – The time when they ran regular dusk-to-dawn screenings of sex and/or violence to get the crowds in.
It worked at the time but the drive-ins soon realised that by running these movies they were alienating their traditional audiences – Families who would take their kids to the drive-in in their pyjamas and dressing gowns.
Sadly for many drive-in theatres, this realisation came too late and many of them were sold to be redeveloped as shopping centres or car parks, or worse still, just closed and left to rot.
A relatively small number of drive-in theatres remain in the US and Australia, many of them now operating as ‘twin’ theatres with two screens and reduced car capacity. Most of the in-car speakers have been replaced by a ‘Cine-Fi’ system which runs directly through your car stereo.
But while many things have changed (not necessarily for the better) in the entertainment and film industry since the heyday of the drive-in movies, some things have remained constant; The snack bar menu is virtually unchanged at most drive-ins, kids still run around in their pyjamas, and young lovers still nestle up tight to one another in cars with steamed-up windows.
The drive-in is possibly still the only place that provides both a family-oriented recreation opportunity and a place to drink with your buddies and lose your virginity.