-THE WRITER’S ALMANAC JUNE 6, 2016
It was on June 8, 1933 that the first drive-in movie theater opened, in Camden, New Jersey. The theater was the brainchild of a young man named Richard Hollingshead Jr., a manager at his father’s Camden auto shop, Whiz Auto Products. He dreamed of creating something that would bring a little fun to the tough daily life of the Depression era. He was also thinking about his mother, who was a little bit overweight and wasn’t comfortable in movie theater seats.
Once he had the idea for a drive-in theater, he got all the materials to try it out in his own backyard. He mounted a film projector on the hood of his car, and attached a screen to a couple of trees. Then he worked out a complicated system of parking spaces with various ramps and blocks to make sure that every car would have an equal view of the screen. Hollingshead even tried to test how well his system worked in adverse weather by turning on his sprinkler in place of rain. The sound was tougher to manage-in the early days of drive-ins, all the sound came through a speaker mounted by the screen, so it was hard to hear for cars parked in the back, and tinny-sounding for everyone. Eventually technology improved, and viewers were able to get the film’s sound through the FM radio in their cars.
One of the big draws of the drive-in theater was that it gave families an activity to do together. There was a kids’ play area and a stand that sold snacks. Hollingshead was quick to point out all the people who could suddenly enjoy going to a film: “Inveterate smokers rarely enjoy a movie because of the smoking prohibition. In the Drive-In theater one may smoke without offending others. People may chat or even partake of refreshments brought in their cars without disturbing those who prefer silence. The Drive-In theater idea virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theater box. The younger children are not permitted in movie theaters and are frequently discouraged even when accompanied by parents or guardians. Here the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be and parents are furthermore assured of the children’s safety because youngsters remain in the car. The aged and infirm will find the Drive-In a boon because they will not be subjected to inconvenience such as getting up to let others pass in narrow aisles or the uncertainty of a seat.”
Hollingsburg applied for a patent in May of 1933 and opened his first theater just three weeks later, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. The film that played on this day was a comedy called Wife Beware, starring Adolph Menjou, which had come out in 1932. The cost was 25 cents per car, and 25 cents per person after that, with a cap at one dollar.