Drive In, Drive Out (They're Leaving)

The History and Decline of the American Drive-In

Chad W. Lutz
Think America. Think Americana. Bubblegum hops filled to the brim with poodle skirts and greaser jackets. Think apple pie. Think baseball. Think holiday grill outs, light beer, and fireworks after a long day of playing at the community pool or cutting grass and listening to the game. Perhaps meeting up at the local ice cream parlor or catching a flick at the local drive-in theatre comes to mind? Although the landscape and makeup of modern America has changed over the last six or seven decades, any of the things listed above reference some of the more staple pleasures derived from American life.

“I love going to the drive-in and watching that 1950s or 60s count down before the show starts: "the show starts in XX minutes,” UC graduate and Cincinnati resident Amanda Emerson reminisces about the Amelia, Ohio, Starlight Drive-in. “And then there was a playground, so we played on the playground with people we didn't know till the movie started or simply just played cards or Frisbee. I miss going.”

Amanda’s sentiments do not stand alone. For many, drive-in theaters represent their youth or childhood. They represent high school or first dates or long summer evenings that could go on forever without argument. Ever since their inception, drive-ins have held a special place in the hearts of Americans, right up there with baseball, parades and fireworks.

The modern drive-in began in 1932 as the backyard dream of a local New Jersey chemical company tycoon. Camden native Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., son of Richard M. Hollingshead Sr., owner and operator of the RM Hollingshead Chemical Corporation Inc., had the crazy idea to start showing movies from his driveway on a giant screen made of bed sheets nailed to trees using a Kodak projector and a small transistor radio. The original setup used blocks to prop cars up in order to give everyone in the neighborhood a good view of the show. At the time, Hollingshead Jr. worked as a sales manager for an auto parts dealer owned by his father’s chemical company. After several successful screen tests and much delight expressed from neighbors, Hollingshead took the idea national and applied for a patent, which was granted to him in May 1933, bringing him closer to realizing his dream.

Little did Hollingshead Jr. realize his idea would soon become an American phenomena and ultimately legend. One month after receiving his patent, the young and ambitious Hollingshead Jr. officially opened what would serve as the first drive-in movie theater in the world on June 6, 1933. Costing patrons a scant quarter to attend, guests were treated to the British Comedy Wives Beware (1932) starring Adolphe Menjou and Margaret Bannerman. The original theater sat just outside of Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and accommodated 400 cars.

The original rationale behind the creation of the drive-in theater remains a sort of mystery to this day. According to some sources, Hollingshead Jr. merely wanted to enhance the audiences’ cinematic experience by taking the screen outside. Other sources, like Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, although somewhat tongue-in-cheek, report seating restrictions as the primary culprit. In a May 2008 interview with writer Robin T. Reid, Kopp hinted the creator of the drive-in theater’s mother was, “rather large for indoor theater seats.”

Initially, the idea took a while to gain traction. The original theater in Pennsauken lasted only three years and faced a number of problems concerning sound until the day it closed in 1937. Design flaws in delivering audio to patrons created a significantly noticeable delay. However, despite early setbacks, a second theater opened roughly a year after the Pennsauken drive-in in 1934 in Orefield, Pennsylvania. Three months later, a third drive-in opened in West Los Angeles followed by a fourth in 1936 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Heavy noise pollution lead to the closing of many of the early drive-in theaters throughout the United States, but the novelty of the idea caught on and soon dozens of theaters began springing across the country.

By 1958, the total number of drive-in theaters peaked at 4,063. Patrons enjoyed the fact you could carry on a casual conversation, lock lips, or tend to otherwise noisy children from the comforts of your own automobile while enjoying a popular movie.
Screenshot of a concession stand commercial used during intermission (your guess is as good as mine).
(Image courtesy Google Images)
Ohio-native and current Maryland resident Ellen Stewart held similar nostalgic sentiments when asked about drive-ins: “When I was little, my family used to go at least once, if not more every summer. I usually fell asleep during the second movie, though…sometimes we would have games or cards to play for the time in between the movies. Drive-ins were better than going to the theater because they're more comfortable, you get to see two movies for the price of one, and you can chat with your friends without people yelling at you.”

However, by the mid-1970s, real estate pricing and negative media attention began to chip away at the once innocent and exciting personality of the drive-in. The large property requirements necessary for drive-ins to exist made it almost impossible for many theaters to turn a profit and remain open and many simply closed their doors. Drive-ins also gained the reputation of being “passion pits” throughout the late-1940s up until their major decline. In response, several theaters in the 1970s began to show pornographic movies instead of the kid-friendly usual repertoire which further lead to decline in attendance and popularity.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s. It’s been more than 20 years since the last true drive-in was built. Now less than 1,000 screens remain open and operational. Flashy megaplexes and home video sales sky rocket while theater attendance drastically drops, especially in the drive-in theater industry. Another villain of the drive-in movie scene, the internet, also begins rearing its ugly head and foreshadows the turmoil for the entertainment industry in the decade to come, let alone for drive-in theaters. Many, once vibrant drive-in theaters have become ancient relics of the past looking much like Perry County, Ohio, Skyline Drive-In in New Lexington.
Fast-forward even further a decade. The year is now 2004, 71 years since the first drive-in opened and 46 years since the drive-in reached its height in popularity. There are only about 400 drive-ins still operational. Urban sprawl has all but devoured many of the once booming outdoor theaters and those who continue to operate do so amid astronomical property taxes and exorbitant purchasing and licensing fees, which has led to an increase in ticket prices and a decrease in attendance. However, some owners, such as Kanauga-native Tom Wheeler, and many patrons, still see the promise, opportunity and allure drive-in theaters present. In 2009, Wheeler, despite a long and harsh winter which pushed back the regular summer season, opens the Kanauga Drive-In Theater in response to public demand. Two years later in the fall of 2011, Tom Wheeler succumbs to the decline of the industry, like many before him, and closes the Kanauga Theater for good.
(Image courtesy (Andrew Carter/2011)
As it stands today, of the 4,063 drive-in theaters in the United States at the height of industry popularity, only 371 remain (AARP July 2011). 29 of which operate in Ohio. What’s interesting to note is the emergence of what have come to be referred to as “Guerilla Drive-Ins,” which are basically private theaters operated by neighborhoods or municipalities for a select audience at random. No real statistics currently exist to calculate the precise number of guerilla theaters operating in the United States, although some estimates suggest hundreds operate throughout the country on a regular and recurring basis.

So what is it about drive-in theaters that although the industry has seen massive decline and hardship throughout the past 5 decades, still draw hundreds of people to wide open fields at sundown to catch movies from the comforts of their cars? The sentiments of Alexandria, Virginia, resident and Ohio-native Jen Johns may say it best.

“I love the drive-in because it represents a time when America, and particularly Northeast Ohio, was booming. In the 1950s as Cleveland’s population was growing, so too was car ownership and the drive-in became a way for Americans of all income levels to come together under a summer night’s sky to enter the world of the movies without ever leaving the passenger’s seat.”