With so much technology available nowadays and instant access to just about everything (movies included), it’s hard to imagine a time when going to a “show” was an event. When seeing a movie meant getting dolled up and washing the T-bird. When the local drive-in movie theater was the most popular destination on a Saturday night. But there was a time…

A guy in Jersey has a screen

It all started at 212 Thomas Avenue in Camden, New Jersey. That’s right, Jersey. Long before our foray into American living rooms through the phenomenon of reality TV, Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. was experimenting with backyard TV.

In 1932, the industrious Hollingshead nailed a screen to a few trees in his yard. He then propped a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, placed a radio behind his makeshift screen, cranked up the volume (one assumes), and voilà : the world’s first outdoor movie theater!

After fiddling with his creation a while longer, the movie- and car-loving Hollingshead applied for a patent, which he received on May 16, 1933. He wasted no time sharing his invention with the world, and less than a month later, the first drive-in movie theater opened on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, New Jersey. (Where?)

A car-crazed nation falls in love

Sadly, Hollingshead’s 400-slot drive-in theater operated for just 3 years, but during that time the fire had been lit and drive-in movies were hot! Over the next few years, drive-ins opened in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, and Virginia — and the nation was bewitched.

As drive-ins became more and more popular, drive-in technology also improved. The speakers, which started out in the screen tower itself (causing a sound delay for cars in the back), were eventually placed in rows in front of the cars (with one for each car). Then finally in 1941, RCA introduced in-car speakers…and things really got good.

Beware the passion pit

During the 1950s and ’60s — around the time of Packards, Fairlanes, and Studebakers — drive-in movie theaters really took off. Coincidence? Doubtful.

With the ’50s and ’60s came great big cars with great big front windshields and great big back seats…perfect for the drive-in experience. And with an estimated 4,000 drive-ins from coast to coast, an exuberant generation made the most of both the theaters and the cars.

Due to increased privacy and their reputation for being make-out havens, drive-in movie theaters were dubbed “passion pits” in the 1950s and considered (by some) to be immoral. Nonetheless, for nearly 2 decades Americans flocked to drive-ins for fun, romance, socializing — and even occasionally to watch a movie.

The last outdoor picture show

Like poodle skirts and greasers, however, even the drive-in had its time. By the ’70s, as real-estate values continued to rise and the coolness of cars debatably began to decline (AMC Gremlin, anyone?), drive-in theaters were on their way out. And over the next 40 years, color TVs, VCRs, DVD players, and streaming technology through companies like Netflix and Vudu made drive-ins essentially a thing of the past.

But take heart, romantics, movie-buffs, and purists. While it’s estimated that there are only about 371 drive-in theaters left in the U.S., there are still 371 drive-ins left in the US! Meaning that, unless you live in Louisiana, Alaska, or Hawaii, there’s likely still a drive-in somewhere in your neck of the woods.

So next time you’re feeling a little nostalgic, grab your steady, load your friends in the trunk, and head to your nearest drive-in for a malt and a trip down memory lane. (Of course, we don’t actually recommend putting your friends in the trunk.)

Related links

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about Heidi

Heidi brings 8 years’ experience to her role as Esurance’s copywriting manager. As a bona fide lit nerd and sucker for anachronism, she spends her days trying to incorporate Hemingway, Frost, and Shakespeare into car insurance (with varying degrees of success).