The History of Drive-In Theaters

Richard Hollingshead and the First Drive-In Theater

At The Drive-In
New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Richard Hollingshead was a young sales manager at his dad's Whiz Auto Products when he got a hankering to invent something that combined two of his interests: cars and movies.

The First Drive-In 

Hollingshead's vision was an open-air theater where moviegoers could watch the movie from their own cars. He experimented in his own driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue, Camden, New Jersey. The inventor mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and projected onto a screen he had nailed to trees in his backyard, and he used a radio placed behind the screen for sound.

Hollingshead subjected his beta drive-in to vigorous testing for sound quality and different weather conditions – he used a lawn sprinkler to imitate rain. Then he tried to figure out how to park the patrons' cars. He tried lining them up in his driveway but this created a problem with line of sight when one car was directly parked behind another. By spacing the cars at various distances and placing blocks and ramps under the front wheels of those that were further away from the screen, Hollingshead created the perfect parking arrangement for the drive-in movie theater experience.

The Drive-In Patent 

The first U.S. patent for a drive-in theater was #1,909,537, issued on May 16, 1933 to Hollingshead. He opened his first drive-in on Tuesday June 6, 1933 with an investment of $30,000. It was located on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey and the price of admission was 25 cents for the car, plus 25 cents per person.

The First “Theaters” 

The first drive-in design didn't include the in-car speaker system that we know today. Hollingshead contacted a company by the name of RCA Victor to provide the sound system, called "directional sound." The three main speakers that provided sound were mounted next to the screen.

The sound quality was not good for cars in the rear of the theater, or for nearby neighbors.

The largest drive-in theater was the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, New York. All-Weather had parking space for 2,500 cars and offered an indoor 1,200-seat viewing area, a kid's playground, a full service restaurant, and a shuttle train that took customers from their cars and around the 28-acre theater lot.

The two smallest drive-ins were the Harmony Drive-In in Harmony, Pennsylvania and the Highway Drive-In in Bamberg, South Carolina. Neither could hold more than 50 cars.

A Theater for Cars…and Planes? 

An interesting innovation on Hollingsworth’s patent was the combination a drive-in and fly-in theater in 1948. Edward Brown, Jr. opened the first theater for cars and small planes on June 3 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Ed Brown's Drive-In and Fly-In had capacity for 500 cars and 25 airplanes. An airfield was placed next to the drive-in and planes would taxi to the last row of the theater. When the movie was over, Brown provided a tow for the planes so they could be taken back to the airfield.