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Happy National Drive-in Day

by DriveInMovie.com; Released : 2018-06-06

Drive-in Movie Screen

History of Drive-ins

Today is National Drive-in Day!  And not just any National Drive-in Day, but the 85th anniversary of the opening of the first drive-in.  The drive-in is truly an American invention as eighty five years ago today on June 6th, 1933, Richard Hollingshead opened the first, permanent drive-in theater in Camden, NJ.  Interestingly, his motivation for developing the drive-in was spurred by the fact that his mother was a fairly large lady who did not fit comfortably into standard indoor movie theater seats.  Wanting to watch movies with his mother, Richard came up with the idea of watching movies from the family car where his mother would be more comfortable.

Richard began experimenting with showing movies in the driveway of his home.  He got ahold of a movie projector which he placed on the hood of his car.  He tied a movie screen to some trees and put a radio behind the screen for sound.  He tried several setup variations before he found what he thought was the right configuration of projector, screen, sound and spacing between cars.  With that he applied for a patent for a drive-in theater in 1932 which was granted in May of 1933.  Shortly thereafter in June of 1933, he opened his first drive-in which was called the Automobile Movie Theatre.  His slogan for his drive-in theater was, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are."  We love this slogan and think it is still true today and still one of the reasons drive-in movies are still around.

Hollingshead never made a profit with his Automobile Movie Theatre and sold it several years later to a new owner who moved it to another location.  Nevertheless, the drive-in craze had started.  Astonishingly, the second drive-in to open, Shankweiler’s Drive-in located in Orefield, PA, was opened in 1934 and is still open today making it the oldest operating drive-in in the world. 

Hollinghead’s patent was ruled invalid in 1950 and the number of drive-ins exploded and then peaked in the late 1950’s – early 1960’s.  During this time, which is generally considered the golden age of drive-ins, there were over 4000 drive-in theaters across the United States.  But the golden age only lasted a decade or so and in the 1970’s the number of drive-ins began to decline rapidly for a number of reasons.  For a more in-depth history of the drive-in, read our article The History of the Drive-in.

The Decline of the Drive-in

There have been many reasons attributed to the rapid and steep decline of drive-in movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But we believe the three biggest reasons were the move to Daylights Savings Time which pushed the start of the movies back an hour; the introduction of VHS movies which provided more in-home movie options; and increasing land values and taxes which made it more profitable to sell a drive-in for the land than to operate it.   By the late 1990’s, over 3000 drive-ins had closed and only about 600 remained.

However, in the early 2000’s, it appeared the steady decline of the drive-in had stopped and actually reversed.  The closings stopped and a few new drive-ins began to open.  But all that changed in the mid 2000’s when the movie studios announced they were switching to digital projection.  This required drive-in theaters to purchase new digital projectors which could cost upwards of $60,000 each.  Many drive-ins could not afford to make the switch to digital and closed.  The phrase of the time was, “Go Digital or Go Dark”, and Go Dark many of them did.  After the switch to digital drove many out of business, by 2016 there were only about 330 drive-ins left operating in the United States. 

The Current State of the Drive-in

As of 2018, there are about 315 remaining drive-ins in the United States, about 40 in Canada and 15 in Australia (you can locate drive-ins by state here).  But in the past year or so, there has been a leveling off of the closings.  As everything old becomes new again, there is a renewed interest in the drive-in because of the unique entertainment experience it provides.  There are currently about 10 new drive-ins which plan to open in 2018 or 2019.  And while that may not sound like a large number, we only know of a couple of closings this year which means 2018 may be the first year in nearly 40 years that we have a net gain of drive-in theaters in the U.S.  While some of the drive-in projects are still in the very early stages of planning, some are already under construction.  For more information on some of these new drive-ins, read our article Are Drive-ins Making a Comeback.

Many people are surprised to learn there are still drive-ins around and even close to them.  If you have a drive-in nearby and want to visit for the first time, there are certain things you should know beforehand such as what to expect, what to bring with you and what not to bring with you.  For a list of tips and suggestions for visiting a drive-in, visit Tips for Visiting the Drive-in.

So on this 85th anniversary of the drive-in, find a drive-in near you, pack up the family (and even pets in some cases) and head out to watch a movie under the stars.  If you are a fan of drive-ins and want to stay up to date on drive-in news, openings and happenings, follow our Facebook page.