History of Drive-In Movie Theaters
A brief history of the drive-in Theater from its inception to the present.
The drive-in Theater was the brainchild of one Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr. The inventor’s father, Richard Milton Hollingshead, Sr., owned and operated a business that first sold harness soap, later moving on to selling a complete line of automotive products under the name of the “Whiz Auto Products Company.” After Richard Jr. finished school, he took a position with his father’s company as general sales manager.
Always on the lookout for new ideas, Richard Jr. began thinking about new business concepts. His preference was to have a cash business, as he didn’t like the idea of going into debt. It dawned on him that in terms of buying habits, people gave up Food, Clothing, Autos and Movies last, in that order. He had noticed that even though the depression was in full swing, folks continued to go to motion pictures at their local Theater. From this, his first notion was to create a deluxe gas station, designed like a Hawaiian Village, that would feature a restaurant and outdoor movies where the customers could mingle while their cars were being serviced, utilizing Whiz Auto Products of course!
It is not clear why he dropped every other aspect of the idea other than the outdoor Theater, but soon Richard, 30 years old by this time, was experimenting with the concept in his back yard on 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton, New Jersey. He started by placing an old Kodak projector on the hood of his car, projecting the movie onto a screen nailed to a tree. He turned on his sprinkler to simulate rainfall, and placed a radio behind the screen to provide the sound. He also reasoned that in order to ensure that all of the vehicles had an un-obstructed view of the screen, they would need to be positioned in a special way. He spent several weeks arranging vehicles in different configurations to solve the visibility problem. The final solution was a series of terraced ramps whose height increased as you parked closer to the screen. This arrangement of ramps was the core of his concept and Richard felt it was strong enough to be patentable, allowing him to collect royalties from future drive-in operators for a period of 17 years, the standard time limit for patents. Or so he thought.
The application for patent was filed on August 6, 1932, and it was later granted by the patent office on May 16, 1933 under patent number 1,909,537. The next thing on the agenda was to build the first drive-in in order to promote the idea to the public as well as potential investors. First off though, he needed to get some financial backing which came from Willie Warren Smith, his first cousin and parking lot operator. The two men then formed a company, called Park-In Theaters Inc. Richard assigned his patent to the company immediately. Edward Ellis, a road contractor, was brought in to grade the lot of the first Theater in exchange for stock. Oliver Willets, an executive of Campbell’s Soup, also bought stock in the company at the time.
On May 16, 1933, the day the patent was granted, work began on constructing the drive-in on Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. The location is usually reported as Admiral Wilson Blvd. in Camden, but technically the Theater was just over the Camden town line, where the name of the road changes. Opening night was June 6, 1933, and it was known simply as “Drive-In Theater” although the actual name was the “Automobile Movie Theater.” Opening night was packed with cars, and the first film ever shown at a drive-in was the 1932 release of “Wives Beware,” which was in second-run status at the time. The problem of obtaining first-run films for drive-ins remains to this day! Admission was 25¢ for each car and an additional 25¢ for each person, somewhat higher than the prevailing price at the indoor houses at the time, who were also offering double features. Ironically, this has reversed itself over time and drive-ins are usually the only places to see double features today.
Hollingshead promoted the drive-in concept by talking about the numerous advantages afforded to the patrons such as the option of smoking without bothering anyone or violating fire laws, talking in your car without disturbing anyone, as well as eating in the privacy of your vehicle. Young children could be brought along with their pajamas and sleep in the back seat so you wouldn’t need to hire a babysitter. One early drive-in operator staged a “Babysitter Protest” with picketing teenage girls marching around with signs that read “Down with Drive-Ins, More Work for Babysitters.” The aged and infirm or severely overweight folks who could not handle the narrow aisles of the indoor houses would also benefit.
It was initially thought that 3 shows a night would be viable, but after only 2 nights this gave way to showing only 2 shows per night, one at 8:45 and another at 10:45 with 2 changes a week. This brings to mind another issue that has changed the film exhibition business greatly. In the old days, it was possible for a small town house or DI to get 2-3 changes a week, which meant that if you were drawing from a small local population, you had something fresh every few days to keep people coming in. Nowadays, it is not unusual for the big studios and distributors to force exhibitors to show a film for a minimum of 4 weeks! Sometimes this can be negotiated down, but it really hurts attendance when most of your audience sees the new release on the first weekend and then you are dead for the next 3 weeks waiting for the next new film. Of course, this led to most Theaters becoming twinned and tripled until the dawn of the Multi-plex and Mega-Plex’s we see today. With 15 screens or more, there is always something new to see. The side effect of this of course is that it led to many drive-ins and small neighborhood houses to close down. This was not the only reason for their demise however, more on that later.
The first drive-in held under 400 cars, despite reports to the contrary, and large trees and fencing were put in to prevent people from seeing the screen from the outside of the lot. The screen was 30 ft. high and 40 ft. wide and it was 12 feet from the ground. It was housed by a larger structure that was 149 ft. wide, 35 ft. high, and 60 ft. deep. The field was paved with gravel and oiled to keep dust down and discourage mosquitoes. Sound was supplied by 3 six-foot square RCA speakers and could be heard from miles around on some nights! Total cost was published at $60,000 but it was more like $25,000. The all-important concession stand was put in after the first week.
Oddly, this first drive-in did not last long. It was closed by 1936 and “moved” to Union, New Jersey by the man who bought it from Hollingshead. The reason given by Richard at the time was the high film rental costs caused the drive-in to be unprofitable. Indeed, he had paid $400 for a 4-day rental of “Wives Beware” when it was available to indoor exhibitors for $20 a week! This would not be the last time that drive-in owners would be treated unfairly by the Hollywood studios. In truth however, there were other reasons for the closure of the first drive-in, mostly technical. The sound was horrible and was not synchronized with the screen due to the delay caused by having the speakers near the screen. The insects, the price and the single bill policy also contributed to its closing.
Although Hollingshead retained his 30% interest in Park-In Inc., he was never again involved in operating a drive-in. He felt that the licensing aspect of the business showed more promise anyway, but unfortunately this was not to be the case. A second drive-in was begun in Weymouth Massachusetts in 1936 and was opened on May 6 of that year. The owners of the Weymouth Drive-In, Thomas DiMaura and James Guarino failed to obtain a license from Park-In however. On July 3rd, legal action was brought against them by Park-In charging patent infringement. Park-In was able to obtain a writ which entitled them to place gate keepers at the Weymouth and collected the entire gate receipts for July 3, 4 and 5 for Park-In. There was subsequent moneys paid, and by the fall the Weymouth partners, a.k.a. Drive-In Theaters Corp entered into a licensing agreement with Park-In.
The cost was a one-time fee of $1000 and 5% of the gross box office receipts. In return they would get a protected territory. In July 1937, Elias M. Leow opened a drive-in at Lynn Massachusetts, in apparent violation of the Weymouth license with Park-In. The Weymouth folks had to sue Park-In to get them to sue the Lynn operation! Meanwhile, Park-In counter-sued Weymouth over an un-authorized location that had been built in Shrewsbury Massachusetts. Then 2 men from California, a Mr. M. A. Rogers and Thomas Burgess, opened a drive-in without obtaining a license from Park-In either. Although the business had gotten off to a slow start, by the late 1930’s things began to heat up.
This was the beginning of what became a morass of legal wrangling with numerous lawsuits and counter-suits all over the country. Drive-Ins began popping up, some were licensed and some were not, some who were licensed originally began to stop paying their royalties to Park-In due to the un-authorized locations being built in their so-called “protected” territories. This legal chaos continued for several years, with locations being built faster than Park-In could sue them. As a historical note, one these early drive-ins was the Sunrise Auto Theater in Valley Stream, Long Island New York. It was owned by one Michael Redstone, father of the mastermind and head of Viacom, Sumner Redstone. This Theater was the seed of what was to become Northeast Theaters which evolved into National Amusements, which eventually would operate 60 drive-ins and dozens of indoor Theaters over the years. Although Mr. Redstone claimed in his book, “A Passion to Win” that the Sunrise drive-in was “probably the fourth drive-in built in the world,” this does not appear to be the case, according to records from back then. It was certainly one of the first 15 to 20 though.
The legal case that had the most lasting impact on the business was with the Loews people, which finally made its way up to the First Circuit Court of appeals. This court’s decision dealt a stunning blow to Hollingshead’s Park-In Company and their ability to collect royalties from any drive-in operator ever again. The court ruled that the patent, which was the basis for the licensing fee, was invalid on its face and never should have been granted in the first place! It was their opinion that it was not inventive at all, but a mere facsimile of the layout an indoor Theater utilized, only having cars instead of seats. The terracing of vehicles was deemed to be a mere adaptation of the sloped floor in a Theater auditorium and was an obvious design, not novel in any way.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, drive-ins were being built at a modest pace, but there were some innovations that greatly improved the drive-in experience. The most important of these was most certainly the in-car speaker. There was an early version of the individual speaker, used in the late 30’s, that was simply a stationary speaker mounted on a pole near the car. RCA announced the availability of the in-car speaker, which was designed to be hung on the car window in 1941. It was not widely used however, until after the war in 1946. This new speaker became a necessity as many communities began instituting noise ordinances which restricted the level of sound that could be heard beyond the drive-in lot. Although there had been many other contraptions devised to deal with the sound issue, the in-car speaker was definitely the best solution and opened the door for the massive growth that was on the horizon during the post-war years.
It was in the period of the late 1930’s that the state of Michigan was introduced to the drive-in, with the opening of the so-called “Drive-In”, later known as the Eastside, on May 26, 1938 with the film The Big Broadcast of 1938. A Mr. John H. Flancher filed a petition in court in July of that year on behalf of the residents of 3 Detroit suburbs. His contention was that the new Theater could be heard from two miles away and should be deemed a public nuisance. Although the petition contained over 500 signatures, the case was dropped when the Theater agreed to take steps to alleviate the problem which seemed to satisfy the petitioners and the court. This would not be the last time a drive-in Theater operator would run afoul of the local community however.
During the 1940’s there were 8 major companies controlling 95% of the films produced. These companies, which included Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros, MGM, RKO, Columbia, Universal and United Artists, not only produced films however, they distributed and exhibited them as well! They used this power against the independent Theater owners by forcing them to take all of their product, regardless of quality, if they wanted to get the big features with all the name stars. This practice, known as “block booking,” was a tough thing to deal with for the ozoners as well the independent indoor houses and was later used as ammunition in a legal case to break up the studio monopoly in 1949. This did not mean however, that it became easy to deal with the major distributors, it just became tolerable.
The drive-ins were also butting heads with many of the indoor operators by then as well. This “outsider” status that drive-ins had has never really gone away, as some people simply looked upon ozoners with disdain. Some examples of this was the refusal of some newspapers to accept advertising for drive-ins and a plan by the Theater Owners of America (TOA) to ban the practice of free admission for children at the drive-in, which they felt was cheapening the movie business!
Despite these setbacks, by 1949, there were 155 drive-ins throughout the country. By 1951, that had increased to 820, and by 1957 the total was to reach 3700! This was certainly the heyday of the drive-in, the post war years when everyone was in love with the automobile and huge suburban communities were being built. The quality of the presentation and overall construction of many of these drive-ins varied widely. Some were elaborate first-class locations with all of the amenities like rides and playgrounds. The first of which was the West Side Drive-In in Detroit which installed a merry-go-round in 1943. Other locations however, were very low-budget affairs with little more than a primitive wooden screen and a modest projection booth utilizing 16mm projectors. A good example of the basic drive-in was the Hilltop in Jackson, MI.
This boom caused a trend toward ever-larger and more elaborate drive-ins, such as the Bel Air Drive-In in Detroit, built in 1950. This location featured space for 2200 cars, an elaborate concession stand along with a full playground and a train ride for the kids. Some operators put up amusement parks, boat rides, fishing ponds and added in-car heaters to remain open year-round for their patrons. All kinds of products were introduced to keep rain off the windshield and chase away the bugs.
The concession business became more important as food revenue increased steadily during this period. Some operators experimented with talk-back speakers to take orders and deliver food to the car, while others had mobile carts patrolling the lots selling snacks. The owners discovered that concessions could be sold at a high mark-up and you didn’t need to give a percentage of that revenue to the film distributor. Of course this food revenue remains extremely important to exhibitors to this day, with film rental rates going as high as 80% on opening weekends for some features. Most locations were utilizing the now-famous drive-in intermission films, popularized by the Filmack Company, that featured dancing hot dogs and countdown clocks.
It was also during this period and into the 1960’s that the drive-in business began to expand beyond U.S. borders, with locations opening in Australia, Great Britain and Denmark among other countries. There was also an initiative underway, started by NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners that is), to invent a “daytime screen” which would allow drive-ins to expand their hours of operation. This was perceived to be important as Daylight Saving Time was starting to be instituted in some areas of the country by then. There were numerous attempts by many firms to perfect the daylight screen but none of them panned out. DST was in full swing by 1967 nationwide, and it is often reported as a reason for declining attendance at drive-ins, due to the later start times. This appears to be an overstatement however, as attendance figures published at the time show no significant decrease during the period when DST was rolled out.
It was in the early 70’s that AM radio sound came into practical use. Although the idea had been kicking around since the 1950’s, with some systems even calling for a separate box the patron would purchase and reuse, it was made practical by Cinema Radio, a company started by Fred J. Schwartz after experiencing what he felt was poor sound quality at a drive-in. As an estimated 97% of cars had AM radios by then, the timing was perfect. Although transmitting a radio signal normally required an FCC license, the drive-in folks were given a pass on this as their systems were low-power and could not normally by heard beyond the drive-in lot. Indeed, the AM system required that a coax cable be buried under the ramps to transmit the signal. The new radio sound would be welcomed by the drive-in operators also because they were growing tired of finding many of their speakers either damaged or stolen at the end of the night! Eventually, FM sound was available which provided better quality. FM is what remains in use to this day at most drive-ins.
No discussion of drive-ins would be complete without the mention of the reputation they had as “passion pits.” This was an image that really went back to the early days and continues to this day. It is certain that that a lot of necking and other such activity went on, although it tends to be somewhat exaggerated. Most owners were promoting their drive-ins to the family trade and openly discouraged these young lovers and their activities. There were even some communities that raised objections over it when they felt it was getting out of hand. The stories of love at the drive-in will live on forever just as the tales of sneaking in under the fence or in the trunk of a car get repeated over and over.
In the end, the image of the ozoner would be affected less by sex AT the drive-in then sex ON the screen itself. The furor over the content of some films being shown at the drive-in goes back to the 50’s, when it was reported in the Detroit Times that adult films such as The Burning Question, Guilty Parents, and How to Take a Bath, were being shown at the Fort, Grand River and Gratiot Drive-Ins. Sometimes operators would slip these features in at the end of a season to generate some extra profit. A showing of Hurly Burly brought out the sheriff at the Division Drive-In in Grand Rapids, even though the film had been cleared by the censors for Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere. The film was confiscated on the last night of its run as the Michigan Archdiocese raised objections in its newspaper.
This issue continued to plague the industry as attendance began to decline by the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s and more and more operators were looking to boost their profits through the showing of exploitation material, often churned out by Detroit-born Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff, and James Nicholson of American International Pictures (AIP). This studio made what are some of the classics of the genre, movies that ranged from Beach Blanket Bingo, numerous Vincent Price horror films such as Tomb of Ligea, to biker films like Hell’s Angels, as well as exploitation films like Blacula. Some of these films may have rankled people at the time, but most would be considered mild by today’s standards. Many of these are now on video and are quite hilarious to watch today. Some drive-ins of course eventually began showing XXX rated films which really alienated them from the community and sped up their demise.
Although the early 1960’s were looking good for drive-ins, with many ozoners out-grossing indoor Theaters and enjoying better margins to boot, attendance began to fade by the mid to late 1960’s. Some reasons given for this are the quality of the films being shown, the older drive-ins falling into disrepair, the popularity of television and the decline of the “Car Culture.” Another factor was that early, multi-plex indoor Theaters began to appear, in fact it was being seen by the major chains as the future of exhibition by then. Although it was harder to multiplex a drive-in, there was some success in making that happen, such as Charles Shafer’s Ford-Wyoming complex in Dearborn, which operates to this day with 9 screens. Although the first signs of decline was recognized by the 1970’s, there were still nearly 3000 locations still open as of 1977. The decade that would prove the most brutal to the drive-in was the 1980’s….
The now infamous quote, from the early 1980’s, came from none other than Sumner Redstone, who operated National Amusements, a company who had built or bought 60 drive-ins by then, was as follows; “Drive-Ins are rapidly becoming part of our nostalgic past. I foresee their extinction by the end of the decade.” Quite a statement from a man who got his start working for his father at the old Sunrise Drive-In out on Long Island, New York. And so it was. Although there was still 2129 drive-ins standing in 1982 this number was reduced to 999 by 1987! The profit of drive-in doom, Sumner Redstone, had been correct! The main reason for this rapid decline was not just a continuation of the problems that started in the 60’s and 70’s but a building boom that occurred in the 1980’s, much of it in suburban or formerly rural areas.
What were once cow pastures in the middle of nowhere were now highly desirable properties, in growing suburban areas. Owners of drive-ins were being offered millions for land they had paid a few thousand for years earlier. That, along with the fact that the operator was probably making a fairly modest income from the drive-in by that time made his decision quite easy, take the money and run! I myself called about the old Lakes Drive-In in Brighton, after it was closed and put up for sale. It was being offered at over 1 million dollars! This once desolate location way out on Grand River had become prime real estate. It immediately dawned on me that this was a huge reason for the decline of the drive-in.
I feel that this selling off of drive-ins in more populated areas created such momentum that eventually many of the drive-ins out in the country were closed as well. Drive-Ins were simply not in vogue anymore. The years of neglect, the lack of good quality family films, television, the multi-plex, the real estate boom and the changing culture all had taken their toll. By the early 1990’s drive-ins dropped to a low of about 750 nationwide. But then, something remarkable happened. The decline stabilized by the mid 1990’s and the number of drive-ins has stayed pretty consistent since then.
Some of the more innovative and dedicated owners hung on, made improvements and weathered the storm. Most drive-ins today reside in smaller towns, but the Miracle Twin, a location that escaped the axe of Sumner Redstone and is still owned by National Amusements, is in the Flint area. Flint is also the home of Lou Warrington’s US-23, who has owned and operated it since its opening in 1952. Other open drive-ins include the Getty 4 in Muskegon, the Sunset Auto Theater in Hartford, the 5-Mile in Dowagiac, the Hi-Way in Carsonville, the Cherry Bowl in Honor and the aforementioned Ford-Wyoming in Dearborn. The big news last year was the opening of the Silverdome Drive-In on the grounds of the Pontiac Silverdome. As great as all of these are, nothing can match the splendor of the Capri Drive-In in Coldwater, lovingly owned and operated by the Magocs family since 1964, it is definitely the standout. The huge main screen, the immaculate lot, great concession food, as well as the wonderful overall presentation makes it the best in the Midwest!
That about wraps up the history of the drive-in so far, hopefully there will be much more to tell in the future. As for our hero Richard Hollingshead Jr., he eventually returned to his fathers company, which by the 1940’s was doing very well, where he became chairman of the board by 1950. The company was eventually absorbed by Litton industries and Richard retired in 1964. He died at the age of 75 on May 13, 1975 in his home in Villanova PA of cancer. Although his family petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences numerous times to recognize Richard’s efforts, his achievements were never formally acknowledged by the motion picture industry. We drive-in lovers however, will always remember him for what he gave to us, the magical experience of watching a movie under the stars, a uniquely American pastime that we should all relish and be proud of.
Bengies Drive In Theater reviews in Maryland
Drive-In Theaters, A History from Their Inception in 1933 by Kerry Segrave
Reprinted with permission from http://www.waterwinterwonderland.com