In 1932, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway in Camden. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen.
Following these experiments, he applied for a patent of his invention, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. Seventeen years later, that patent was declared invalid by the Delaware District Court.
Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken, a short distance from Cooper River Park. He advertised his drive-in theater by saying, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are."
It only operated for three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states. The 1934, opening of Shankweiler's Auto Park in Orefield, Pennsylvania, was followed by Galveston's Drive-In Short Reel Theater (1934), the Pico in Los Angeles (1934) and the Weymouth Drive-In Theatre in Weymouth, Massachusetts (1936). In 1937, three more opened in Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with another twelve during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia.
One reason that drive-ins were so popular is that it allowed the entire family to go to the movies and not have to hire a baby-sitter or worry that their children would disrupt the entire audience. The entire family could enjoy a movie in the privacy of their own vehicles, for the same cost that a couple would pay to see a movie in a theater.
Before World War 2, there had been approximately 100 major drive-ins nationwide, and the drive in craze began to build very strongly following the end of the war. Many GI’s had traveled the country and seen drive-ins. Enterprising businessmen realized that this segment of the population could be tapped and spend some of their earnings to enjoy themselves, a date, or an evening with the family.
The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4000 drive-ins spreading across the US. Parents with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers found drive-ins ideal for dates. Revenue was more limited than regular theaters since showings can only start at twilight. There were abortive attempts to create suitable conditions for daylight viewing, such as large tent structures, but nothing viable was developed.
In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1970s, some drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation movies. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This became a problem because it allowed for censored materials to be available to a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal. This also led to concern about the availability and uncontrollability of adult-centered media in the general public.
Teenagers with limited incomes developed an ingenious method to see drive-in movies for free: two teenagers (usually a couple) would take their car to the drive-in, and pay for two tickets. After the couple entered the theater and found a parking space, the driver would open the trunk, and other teenagers hidden inside jumped out to enjoy the "free" movies. To ensure one person was not continually stuck with paying, the ticket cost was often rotated or split among the friends.
Nearly anyone who grew up in America during the 1950s and 1960s has fond memories of drive-ins. Whether one remembers the playground as a child, going on dates as a teenager or taking the family out, drive-ins became an ingrained part of Americana. The drive-in became an equalizer in that a person’s social or economic status was irrelevant; people simply were going to the movies.
Many drive-ins devised very elaborate and sometimes quirky modes of comfort. Some drive-ins provided small propane heaters, attempting to entice their patrons to come in colder months. Some drive-ins provided a heating or air-conditioning system via underground ducts to heat or cool patrons, but due to their frequency of becoming homes for rodents, many people actually ended up with a car full of mice instead.
Audio systems varied greatly during the era of drive-ins. Some used portable speakers on trucks during the early days but this proved ineffective since the people in the front were blasted with sound while the people in the back could not adequately hear what was going being said. Finally the best solution came in the form of small speakers which could be hooked onto the sides of the vehicles. These also had issues with quality and did not provide stereo sound. Many drive-ins also had strange and seemingly useful devices such as mosquito nets and rain guards.
During their height, drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to entice even more people to become patrons. Some drive-ins installed small runways so patrons could fly in. Other drive-ins had strange and unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or a cage of monkeys. Many of the larger drive-ins had appearances by celebrities or musical groups, and some drive-ins actually had religious services performed on their grounds on Sunday morning and evening, before the show.
Eventually, the rising value of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the popularity of drive-ins. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in isolated areas. Many drive-in movie sites remain, as flea markets or other businesses.
In 2002, groups of dedicated individuals began to organize so-called "guerilla drive-ins" and "guerilla walk-ins" in parking lots and empty fields. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses.
The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, MobMov in Berkeley, California and Hollywood MobMov in Los Angeles, California, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria, BC.
The Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, Minnesota has recently begun summer "bike-ins," inviting only pedestrians or people on bicycles onto the grounds for both live music and movies. In various Canadian cities, al-fresco movies projected on the walls of buildings or temporarily erected screens in parks operate during the Summer and cater to a pedestrian audience. (info from Wikipedia) (Kansas theater photo from www.reeldiaries.com)