On the evening of June 6, 1933, motorists crowded into a parking lot on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey for the first ever drive-in movie screening. And with that, the drive-in theater craze was born.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
Back then, the term “drive-in” wasn’t used. Instead, Richard Hollingshead, the man who developed the idea, originally called the concept “park-in theaters.” Hollingshead was reportedly inspired by the fact that his mom struggled to sit comfortable in traditional theater seats, History reports. He wondered whether it would be better if people could enjoy open-air theaters where people watched films from the comfort of their cars.
The first iterations were as ramshackle as you could imagine. Hollingshead mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinned a screen to some trees, and put a radio behind the screen for sound. He sampled ways to avoid inclement weather. He experimented with the ideal number of cars that could squish into the same lot without it being too cramped but would still have space to view the screen.
“My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theater and it relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities of the theater,” his patent application read, “...wherein the performance, such as a motion picture show or the like, may be seen and heard from a series of automobiles so arranged in relation to the stage or screen, that the successive cars behind each other will not obstruct the view.”
With a $30,000 investment (over $600,000 today), Hollingshead made his dream a reality. He charged viewers 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person within the car—but he’d cap a full car at one dollar.
Unfortunately, Hollingshead's patent was overturned in 1949, which can be done when people suspect the invention existed prior to the patent. That meant that it was, essentially, free game to everyone who wanted to use the drive-in idea. Within 15 years, the drive-in theater had exploded in popularity.