Abandoned: The Dying Light of America’s Drive-In Movie Theaters (Photos)


Previously: The Penn Hills Resort.

I love a good multiplex with stadium seating and IMAX screens as much as the next girl — but there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned drive-in movie.

The earliest version of the drive-in dates back to 1921 when Claude V. Carver of Comanche, Texas screened silent films for the city downtown, with cars parked bumper to bumper to watch them. However, it was Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Riverton, New Jersey who perfected and patented the idea. In 1932, the 32-year-old was working as a sales manager at Whiz Auto Products, a company owned by his father; but when he came up with the idea to screen films from cars parked in his driveway, he knew was on to something. He plunked a 1928 Kodak projector on the roof of his own car, projecting the films themselves on a sheet hung between two trees in his yard. Legend has it that Hollingshead developed the idea as a solution to problems his mother had with regular movie theater seats; whether or not this is fact or fiction, however, remains to be seen. I’m inclined to think it’s fiction — a pleasant tale to enhance the origin story — but in any event, he applied for a patent during the summer of 1932 and was granted it on May 16, 1933.

Hollingshead opened his first public drive-in, Park-In Theaters in Camden, New Jersey, on August 6, 1933. He charged 25 cents per person, as well as an additional 25 cents per car; the film screened was Wives Beware, a 1932 film adaptation of the stage play Two White Arms by Harold Dearden. Soon after, other drive-ins began popping up across the nation — except there was a problem: Not all of them were licensed. Since Hollingshead held the patent for the idea, anyone who opened a drive-in was legally obligated to enter a licensing agreement with his company, Park-Ins, Inc., including paying all the fees that would go along with it.

In 1949, however, the patent was overturned; the original concept was found “lacking any inventiveness.” Its layout, after all, was essentially the same as that of indoor cinemas, with the sole difference being that cars replaced the standard seats. The court stated that the patent should never have been granted to begin with, ultimately ruling it invalid.

This ruling paved the way for the drive-in’s heyday. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, it reigned as a king of entertainment; it allowed families to enjoy a night out together, while also granting couples relative privacy during date nights. Drive-ins tended to play B movies, as opposed to top Hollywood films — which may have eventually contributed to the fall of the drive-in, but which made for some fun times in the intervening years. The transmission of sound for the movies originally relied on speakers; what began as large speakers hung from the screen itself later gave way to smaller, individual speakers that attached to each car. Later still, the speakers were jettisoned altogether in favor of broadcasting the sound over AM or FM radio: Each car tuned its radio to the correct frequency, allowing for the easy and relatively inexpensive transmission of the film’s soundtrack.

But by the ‘70s, the drive-in began to go the way of all things. The B movie fare that served as most drive-ins’ bread and butter eventually began to hurt it, with the lack of quality films sending more people to indoor first-run cinemas instead. Furthermore, many drive-ins had fallen into a state of disrepair; their unsavory appearance (as well as the accompanying unsavory activities that often occurred at them) subsequently destroyed their reputation as family-friendly entertainment destinations. The advent of cable and home video in the ‘80s further drove the idea into obsolescence: The relative privacy initially afforded by viewing films from one’s car was nothing compared with the privacy of viewing them from the comfort of your own home. As a result, countless drive-ins across the U.S. have wound up abandoned, their screens tattered, their concession stands trashed, and their parking spaces overgrown.

Though uncommon today, the drive-in hasn’t died out entirely; they can still be found in almost every state in the U.S. — if you know where to look. The website DriveInMovie.com has what is probably the most comprehensive listing of drive-in theaters by state, as well as a few options in Canada — head on over there to find the one nearest you. Myself? I have memories of spending the Fourth of July at one with my family during the summer of 1993. Located in New Hampshire by Weirs Beach, it kept the traditional double feature format of second-run films, opening with the third Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and closing with Benny and Joon. At the time, drive-ins were a concept to me only, limited to what I saw during screenings of Grease during sleepovers with my friends and a lunchtime adventure at Disney World’s Sci-Fi Dine-In restaurant during a trip we took several years before.

Not going to lie: It was a pretty magical experience. It had the same clandestine air that light night drives always hold for small children, with the added bonus of including one of my favorite obsessions of the time (that is, the Ninja Turtles. Because, I mean… Ninja Turtles). I fell asleep during Benny and Joon and subsequently missed seeing a moose almost run into our car on the way home; I regret missing the moose, but the rest of the experience has stuck with me over the years in a way most movie-going experiences don’t. It’s worth going once, just to see what it’s like. I promise.

See you at the movies.


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