The Drive-In Movie Theater

by Randal Hill

On June 6, 2008, a unique flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol in
Washington, D.C. to commemorate a special event. A watershed moment in American history? Well, sort of. The banner honored the 75th anniversary of the drive-in movie theater.

Its beginning can be traced back to 1932, when folks living on Thomas
Avenue in Camden, N.J., might have witnessed some strange goings-on from
neighbor Richard Hollingshead. He had nailed a bedsheet between two trees by
his driveway, set a home movie projector on the hood of his car, and placed a radio behind the sheet. Then Hollingshead, his radio blaring at full volume, had
projected a movie onto his fluttering screen.”

Why all that weird activity? Hollingshead had been concerned about
his mother, who was a rather large lady. To Mrs. Hollingshead, a visit to an indoor
movie house guaranteed great discomfort in a too-tight theater chair. Her son
figured that if a film could be enjoyed from the comfort of a spacious auto seat,
this could alleviate his mother’s problem. And so was born the drive-in movie
concept.

One year later, and with three other investors, Hollingshead bought 400
nearby acres and terraced 336 parking spaces in gentle front-wheel inclines,
so that vehicles directly in front of car cocooned viewers wouldn’t block the
screen.

On opening night, visiting movie patrons handed over 25 cents apiece to
see a British comedy on a 40-by-50-foot screen. Customers instantly embraced
Hollingshead’s brainchild—they could relax in their vehicles, smoke cigarettes,
bring their kids, chat without being shushed.

Thanks to a prosperous
economy and a growing car
culture, drive-in theaters
mushroomed in popularity
after World War II. By 1958
the number of such sites—
featuring about 25 percent of
all movie screens in America
at the time—reached its
peak with 4,063 locations.
The largest such venue was
the All-Weather Drive-In in
Copiague, N.Y., which boasted
2,500 parking spaces, an
additional indoor sitting area, a playground, a shuttle and a full-service restaurant that offered rooftop dining.

The unavoidable passage of time brought unwelcome changes in the form
of soaring land values and competition from increasing technology, especially
with the development of popular home video systems.

While most former sites have morphed into housing developments or
shopping centers, the remaining weed infested lots and flea-market locales now
stand as sentinels to still-vivid memories of silver-screen stories once told under
nighttime skies.

Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at wryterhill@msn.com.

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