It was summer evening in the late 1920s. Richard M. Hollingshead was trying to show friends some home movies in his living room, but the stifling heat was making them uncomfortable. On an impulse, he took his projector outside, set it on the hood of his Model A Ford, and showed the films on a sheet draped across the garage door instead. The guests loved it. In fact, they were so enthusiastic about watching movies outdoors that it gave Hollingshead a business idea: why not show short movies at gas stations to keep patrons entertained while they’re filling up their tanks.
That idea went nowhere, because gas station owners weren’t willing to pay for it. But it evolved into a new scheme. Hollingshead decided to show full-length films outdoors to paying customers – who would watch the movies from their automobiles. To make it possible, he created a system of ramps that tilted cars up so people could see over the vehicles in front of them. He even watched films with his lawn sprinkler going to see if it was possible to see a movie during a rainstorm.
Hollingshead patented his designs, and on June 6, 1933, he opened the world’s first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey. more than 600 people showed up for the premier, paying 25 cents per car plus 25 cents per occupant ($1 tops) to see Wife Beware, a second-run film starring Adolphe Menjou.
Soon, drive-ins were popping up all over the country. But they faced some formidable opposition. In those days, the studios that made movies also owned nearly all of the movie theaters in the country. They saw the drive-in as a threat to their indoor theater profits, and retaliated by charging exorbitantly high rental prices and withholding their best first-run films. Business was so slow that Hollingshead got out of the drive-in business in 1935.
Everything changed after World War II. Americans had money, cars, kids, and homes in the suburbs – and drive-ins were the perfect family outing. People could dress casually, bring their own food, smoke, talk, and entertain the kids without paying for a sitter. For teens, roomy back seats provided a private place to go on a weekend night. The marriage of car and movie seemed perfect, and drive-ins opened up all over the country: by 1957, considered the peak year, there were approximately 4,100 drive-ins from coast to coast, accounting for 31% of all movie business in the U.S.
By the ‘60s, however, rising land costs, shrinking cars, the declining quality of drive-in film fare, and the improving quality of TV all combined to put the drive-in on the endangered list. Loosening sexual mores were another problem. As casual sex became more commonplace and acceptable, drive-ins lost much of their allure. They began disappearing from across the landscape, and by the ‘80s the industry was in freefall. More than 1,000 drive-ins bit the dust in 1988 alone, and fewer than 870 remain today. A fur store is now on the site of Hollingshead’s original drive-in.
At least one company, American International Pictures, sprang up to make movies just for drive-ins. Over 25 years, AIP cranked out more than 500 low-budget films with titles like I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain Eaters, and A Bucket of Blood. While other Hollywood studios made a film and then advertised it, AIP came up with a film title they thought would sell first, then drew up movie posters and sent them to theater owners to see if they were interested. “If it passed all those things,” producer Samuel Z. Arkoff explains, “then we’d get a script and a director. We made $100,000 pictures with million-dollar titles. We owned the drive-ins.
Several drive-ins offered church services on Sunday mornings. By 1967, Time reported, there were more than 70 in operation around the country. The services were popular with churchgoers: they didn’t have to get dressed up to attend, and they could say Amen, as one pastor described it, with “a gentle, dignified horn toot.”