History of Drive-in Theaters Beverly Drive-In Theatre, Hattiesburg Mississippi
Inspired by his twin love of cars and movies, entrepreneur Richard Hollingshead, Jr. combined the two, and in 1933, opened the first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingshead patented his design for the theater, which consisted of a screen tower and a series of ramps in a fan-shaped arrangement, and sold rights to use the design for $1,000 and 5% of the gross receipts. A theater with a 300-car capacity required six to seven acres of land; a 600-car drive-in required twelve acres.
The early years of drive-in theaters saw slow growth. Many were initially leery of the idea, and the Depression limited new commercial endeavors of many kinds. On average, it cost approximately $30,000-$35,000 to construct a drive-in theater-no small sum in the 1930s. The first eight years were slow enough in drive-in growth, but the WWII era saw no growth at all due to nationwide limits on construction, gas rationing, and the unavailability of tires. By 1946, only 102 drive-in theaters existed in the United States.
The post-war economic boom in the U.S. was mirrored by the drive-in theater boom. In 1947, there were 155 drive-ins; by 1949, there were 820; and by 1955, there were nearly 4000. Post-war drive-in construction and growth were greatly aided by technological improvements made during the war years. The previously problematic sound system was finally solved when RCA developed an in-car speaker system (thus providing great relief to surrounding neighborhoods), and projection technology improved enough to allow for larger and larger drive-ins without losing picture quality to the farther rows. These economies of scale allowed for more profitable operations.
Along with the economic boom came the post-war baby boom, a factor that made the drive-in theater more popular than ever. Parents did not have to worry about sitters, as the kids could come along and sleep in the back seat. And if they did become a bit unruly, and cried or screamed, one need not be worried about disturbing other patrons. the drive-in theater became a primary family recreation activity in the post-war decade. The convenience of it was hard to beat: families could dress as they liked (including small children in footed pajamas); they could eat, drink, and smoke in their cars; and there was never a problem with parking. Add to that the growing American obsession with the automobile and the result was that, even though the drive-in theaters showed mostly only B-grade or second run movies, people flocked to them in numbers as never before.
With the flood of families attending the drive-in came amenities designed just for them. Many drive-ins installed bottle warmers for parents who brought infants. Play areas, picnic areas, and of course, the concession stands (or even mobile) refreshment carts) with a variety of foods were all drive-in features not found in the traditional indoor theater. Some theaters offered more elaborate entertainment, including miniature golf courses, driving ranges, live music and dancing, and more. The drive-in theater was not simply a movie but became an "entertainment event."
During the 1950s, the drive-in thrived as a new business venture. The facility was considerably less expensive to build than an indoor theater, and they boomed in contrast to their more traditional predecessor. From 1946 to 1953, 85 new indoor theaters were opened, while almost 4700 closed their doors for good. In contrast to those figures, almost 3000 new drive-ins were built, while only 342 closed down. There clearly was a significant trend occurring, and as their popularity grew, many drive-ins stayed open year round.
During the early decades, great hostility existed between the owners of indoor theaters and the owners of drive-ins, though there was actually very little competition in the traditional sense. This was largely because, early on, all the major studios also owned or contracted with most of the existing theaters, so they had a monopoly over the showing of A-grade movies. Drive-ins and independent theater owners were left withy mostly B-grade movies and old westerns. In addition, surveys were actually conducted that clearly indicated that drive-ins did not steal patronage from indoor theaters; in fact, those who went to drive-ins would not have attended traditional theaters-a whole new group of movie patrons emerged to attend the "ozone" theaters.
The drive-in theater saw its peak in the late 1950s and from there started a steady decline. The reasons for the demise of the "ozoners" are complex and interrelated. Given the huge success of these theaters in the 1950s, the drive-in owners made no efforts to improve the stock of films they showed. They saw no reason to worry that they had access to only B-grade or second run films. People poured in anyway, as the novelty of the drive-in brought them flocking. Early on, there was an endless choice of these films available as the film studios poured out mediocre films to fill their studio-owned indoor theaters. In the late 1940s, this film studio monopoly was challenged and the studios were forced to sell off their theaters. Once this occurred, they did not have a need to produce as many films and the number of available features dropped precipitously. At about the same time that some of the drive-in novelty was wearing off, the unavailability of new films was realized and attendance began to drop.
As attendance dropped at the drive-ins, the first things to go at the outdoor facilities were the "extras." The playgrounds (also effected by sharp increases in liability insurance costs), the shuffleboard courts, and the diaper stations and bottle warmers, all slowly disappeared. As these extras disappeared, the theaters were less appealing to families-the mainstay of the drive-ins. Family drive-in attendance was also frustrated by the permanent installation of daylight savings time in 1967. The pushing back of sunset meant pushing back the start time of the movies. In some northern areas, movies could not start until well past nine o'clock at night, making it less appealing for families with young children who did not want to be out so late.
Meanwhile, teenagers found new places to meet and socialize. The rise of the mall had a significant impact on drive-in attendance. Indoor theaters survived by going multi-plex, and building smaller theaters. This was an effective remedy to the decreasing numbers of movie-goers. It was very difficulty for drive-ins to follow suit. Some drive-ins did divide into 2-, 3- or even 4-screen theaters, but still, they were too large for the number of cars that passed through the gates.
While the advent of television had little impact on the drive-in, later television related developments did. Cable television, video cassette recorders, home entertainment centers, all participated in the decline of the popularity of the drive-in. The family room at home with its comfortable seating and easy access to bathrooms and snacks provided a more convenient and comfortable place to watch a movie. Add to that the changing nature of the automobile in America; no longer a huge gas-guzzler with roomy bench seating front and back, the newer cars were compact with little room for comfort or cuddling.
A final, but not insignificant, factor in the demise of the drive-in was the sheer size of the typical facility and the fact that the land often became too valuable. As communities continued to grow and sprawl, they began to encroach on the theaters that were once located well outside the city limits. Drive-in owners could continue to struggle with diminishing sales and revenues, or they could sell the 20-30 acres the theater sat on for sometimes millions of dollars for commercial or residential development. Adding to the incentive to sell out was the fact that most of the facilities were reaching 20, 30, even 40 years of age, and maintenance costs were beginning to grow; the incentives to invest significant amounts of money into a failing industry were pretty small.