A drive-in theater is a form of cinema structure consisting of a large outdoor movie screen, a projection booth, a concession stand and a large parking area for automobiles. Within this enclosed area, customers can view movies from the privacy and comfort of their cars.
The screen can be as simple as a wall that is painted white, or it can be a steel truss structure with a complex finish. Originally, a movie's sound was provided by speakers on the screen and later by an individual speaker hung from the window of each car, which would be attached by a wire. This system was superseded by the more economical and less damage-prone method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM radio to be picked up by a car radio. This method also allows the soundtrack to be picked up in stereo by the audience on an often high fidelity stereo installed in the car instead of through a simple speaker.
The drive-in theater was patented by Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden. In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton. 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. In 1921, however, a more public drive-in was created by Claude V. Caver in Comanche, Texas. Caver obtained a permit from the city to project films downtown and cars parked bumper to bumper to witness the screening of silent films from their vehicles. Following the experiments of Caver and Hollingshead, it was Hollingshead who applied August 6, 1932, for a patent of his invention, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933.
Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933, on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, a short distance from Cooper River Park. Rosemont Avenue now runs through the prior location. It offered 400 slots and a 40 by 50 ft (12 by 15 m) screen. He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are." The first film shown was the Adolphe Menjou film Wife Beware. The facility only operated three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states.
The April 15, 1934, opening of Shankweiler's Auto Park in Orefield, Pennsylvania, was followed by Galveston's Drive-In Short Reel Theater (July 5, 1934), the Pico Drive-In Theater at Pico and Westwood boulevards in Los Angeles (September 9, 1934) and the Weymouth Drive-In Theatre in Weymouth, Massachusetts (May 6, 1936). In 1937, three more opened in Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with another 12 during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia. Early drive-in theaters had to deal with noise pollution issues. The original Hollingshead drive-in had speakers installed on the tower itself which caused a sound delay affecting patrons at the rear of the drive-in's field. In 1935, the Pico Drive-in Theater attempted to solve this problem by having a row of speakers in front of the cars. In 1941, RCA introduced in-car speakers with individual volume controls which solved the noise pollution issue and provided satisfactory sound to drive-in patrons.
The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates. Revenue is more limited than regular theaters since showings can only begin 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 films, as a way to offset declining patronage and revenue. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This allowed censored materials to be viewed by a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal, and it was reliant upon the whims of local ordinances controlling such material. It also required a relatively remote location distant from populated areas such as towns and cities.
During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance. They ranged from small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, personal appearances by actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show. Some drive-ins held Sunday religious services, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesdays. On "buck" nights during the 1950s and 1960s, the admission price was one dollar per car.
One of the largest drive-in theaters was the Johnny All-Weather Drive-In in Copiague, Long Island, New York. Covering over 29 acres, it could park 2,500 vehicles. It had a full-service restaurant with seating on the roof, and a trolley system to take children and adults to a playground and a large indoor theater for bad weather or for those who wanted to watch in air-conditioned comfort.
Over time, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Land became far too valuable for businesses such as drive-ins, which in most cases were summer-only. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time made the shows start an hour later. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the drive-in popularity. Drive-ins were subject to the whim of nature as inclement weather often caused cancellations. 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 some areas.
By 2013, drive-ins comprised only 1.5 percent of movie screens in the United States. At the industry's height, 25 percent of the nation's movie screens had been in a drive-in.
Many drive-in movie sites remain, repurposed as storage or flea market sites, often after residential housing or other higher value uses came to the lightly populated or unpopulated areas where the drive-ins were located. The largest drive-in theater in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, doubles as the world's largest daily flea market. Former drive-in properties in Michigan, for example, have become industrial parks, shopping centers, indoor theaters, and even churches (as with the Former Woodland Drive-In in Grand Rapids, MI). In Philadelphia, the South City Drive In became the location of the original Spectrum in the late 1960s, with a small portion of its old property line extending into what would become the (now demolished) Veterans Stadium complex. Another example of a drive in-turned-flea market is Spotlight 88 in North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which ended business as a drive-in after an F3 tornado destroyed much of the property on May 31, 1985. As a joke after the tornado hit, the owners put up in the "now-showing" sign Gone with the Wind. It was most likely copied from a Taylor, Michigan Drive in called Ecorse Drive-In. On July 16, 1980, a freak derecho storm with 150 mph straight line winds  swept the Drive-In away leaving only the "now-showing" sign with the letters "Now Playing Gone with the Wind". They rebuilt the screen, but it never recovered; by 1989, it was sold and now is a Kroger Grocery store.
The year 2001 marked the inception of the "do-it-yourself" drive-in, which utilized contemporary tools such as LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters. The first was the Liberation Drive-In in Oakland, California, which sought to reclaim under-utilized urban spaces such as vacant parking lots in the downtown area. The following years have seen the rise of the "guerrilla drive-in" movement, in which groups of dedicated individuals orchestrate similar outdoor film and video screenings. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The content featured at these screenings has frequently been independent or experimental films, cult movies, or otherwise alternative programming. The best known guerrilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, North Bay Mobile Drive-In in Novato, California, MobMov in San Francisco, California and Hollywood, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia.
Faced with the closure of Hull's Drive In in Lexington, Virginia in 1999, the non-profit group Hull's Angels formed to raise funds, buy the property and operate the theater as a non-profit venture specializing in family-friendly films. Hull's continues to be the nation's only non-profit drive in.
The ongoing conversion of the film distribution network to be exclusively digital distribution is also putting additional pressure on drive-in theaters. Most small drive-ins lack the finances (beginning at $70,000 per screen) needed to convert to digital projection. The lack of multiple screens with many daily showings means the low volume of ticket sales will make it hard for many drive-ins to justify the cost of installing digital projection.
Conversion of the projection booth to digital is more complex for drive-in theaters. The projector needs a more powerful bulb since the booth is usually the length of a football field away from the screen. In addition, digital projection equipment requires an Internet connection, and the booth must be retrofitted with special glass, more vents and stronger air conditioning.
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- "For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival", Nancy Mullane, All Things Considered, April 21, 2008.
- A freely downloadable collection of drive-in intermission advertisements
- "Starlit Screens: Preserving Place and Public at Drive-In Theaters," Robin Conner and Paul Johnson, Southern Spaces, October 10, 2008. http://southernspaces.org/2008/starlit-screens-preserving-place-and-public-drive-theaters
- Will the endangered American drive-in fade to black? - CNN
- United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association
- Richard Kuipers' article about Australian Drive-In theatres, and their depiction in Australian films, on australianscreen
- Drive-ins.com searchable database of 4995 drive-in movie theaters past and present