History of the Drive-In Theatre

Timeline created by jzadler91
In Film
  • First Drive-In Opens

    It all started in Camden, New Jersey, when Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. opened the world’s first drive-in theatre on June 6, 1933. Coined “the Automobile Movie Theatre,” the theatre was located in Hollingshead’s backyard. The screen was a white sheet tied between two trees, a radio behind the screen provided sound, while a Kodak movie projector on the hood of Hollingshead’s car showed the feature. On opening night, the movie shown was Wives Beware. Admission was 25 cents a car.
  • Shankweiler's Opens

    The second American drive-in opened in Orefield, Pennsylvania on April 15, 1934. Known as Shankweiler’s Drive-In, it remains the oldest drive-in theatre in the world that is still in operation today. Before the end of the decade, there would be 18 drive-ins across the United States.
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    The War Years

    By the beginning of 1942, there were 95 drive-ins across 27 U.S. states. However, when the United States became involved in World War II, the number of new theatres dropped suddenly. Americans wanted to ration gas and contribute rubber (used for tires) toward the war effort. Only six new drive-ins opened during wartime; meanwhile, some theatres closed down since they could not sustain business during this period.
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    Postwar Prosperity

    After the war period ended, drive-in theatres saw staggering success. At the beginning of 1946, there were 102 drive-ins in the United States. That number would blossom to 820 by the end of 1948. To orient audiences to the features of the theatre, from working the sound system to parking the vehicles, some drive-ins hosted an 'open house' for curious patrons.
  • Canada Joins the Club

    In 1946, Canada’s first drive-in theatre – the Skyway Drive-In, in Stoney Creek, Ontario – opened. Owned by Famous Players, it held spots for 706 cars. The theatre closed in 1970.
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    The Flourishing Fifties

    Due to enhanced technology and new in-car speakers, drive-ins became a very hot property. As huge suburban communities grew during the 1950s, drive-ins started to pop up on the outskirts of suburban areas, ensuring increased attendance among families and young adults. By 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theatres across North America.
  • Port Hope Opens a Drive-In

    The oldest Canadian drive-in still in operation is the Port Hope Drive-In, built in 1952. The drive-in's originally name was the Midway.
  • A Giant Opens

    Johnny All-Weather Drive-In, the world's first drive-in theatre to have an accompanying indoor movie theatre, opens in Copiague, New York. Both venues were monstrous: the outdoor area could hold 2,500 cars while the indoor cinema on the same premises had seating for close to 1,200 patrons. The property closed in 1984.
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    The Dwindling Decades

    During the 1960s, drive-in business started to wane. The introduction of cable TV and VCRs in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the advent of multi-screen indoor movie theatres in suburban areas, contributed to the decline of drive-in attendance. During this period, operators started to show exploitation films and pornography to attract an alternative audience. By 1990, there were around 900 drive-ins opened in the United States – although just 10 years earlier, there were more than 2,100.
  • The Thunderbird Opens

    The Thunderbird Drive-In, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opens. Its opening night is overshadowed by a major national crisis: President Kennedy's assassination. Regardless, the Thunderbird proves to be such a popular destination during its opening years that a full-time circus comes onto the theatre grounds six days a week. Meanwhile, the theatre adds 12 extra screens in the 1990s, when it was renamed the Swap Shop Drive-In. It remains the world's largest drive-in theatre complex.
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    Some Go Dark, Some Shine Brighter

    Although theatres are still closing, some drive-ins still get solid crowds and their owners decide to add more screens to capitalize on more business. Many families return in their cars to rediscover an old pastime to the extent that the complexes don't have enough space to park the cars.
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    A 21st Century Revival

    Although drive-ins have not reclaimed the same popularity that they had in the 1950s, many still do excellent business during the summer months and beyond. Operators that survived years of financial decline are stabilizing business by investing in multiple screens and digital projection, while some sites offer playgrounds, miniature golf and other types of entertainment to draw in families. In the United States and Canada, there are more than 400 drive-ins still operating.