1932: Richard Milton Hollingshead Jr., a chemical engineer and oil and grease salesman, conducts his first experiments in outdoor viewing by nailing a bedsheet between two trees and putting a 1928 16mm movie projector on the hood of his car. He designs a ramp system to angle parked cars upward and tests the effects of rain on the windshield by using lawn sprinklers. By August, Hollingshead is ready to patent his idea (#1,909,537).
June 6, 1933: Hollingshead’s first outdoor theater opens on Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, near Riverton and Camden, New Jersey. Admission is 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person. The venue is originally just called Drive-In Theatre, although the actual name is the Automobile Movie Theatre. The opening feature is Wife Beware, a second-run from the previous season. This begins a long-running feud between “ozones” (outdoor theaters, as dubbed by Variety magazine) and indoor theaters battling for first-run features. Hollingshead pays $400 for a four-day rental of Wives Beware when indoor exhibitors can get it for $20 a week! The first drive-in closes in 1936 and is moved by its new owner to Union, New Jersey.
April 15, 1934: Shankweiler’s Auto Park theater in Orefield, Pennsylvania, opens. Like all other drive-ins, it must pay Hollingshead’s Park-In Theatres for the rights to run an outdoor screen: a one-time fee of $1000 and 5 percent of the gross box office receipts. 1934:
The Pico Drive-In opens at the corner of Pico and Westwood in Los Ange- les, California’s first and America’s fourth outdoor theater.
May 6, 1936: The Weymouth Drive-In opens in Weymouth, Massachusetts, though owners Thomas DiMaura and James Guarino fail to obtain a license from Park-In. On July 3, Park-In files a law- suit charging patent infringement, obtaining a writ entitling Holling- shead to place employees at the Weymouth to collect the entire box office proceeds for July 3, 4, and 5. Subsequent money is paid, and in a few months the Weymouth’s own- ers reach a licensing agreement with Park-In.
1938: Hollingshead sells his patent to Willis W. Smith, who franchises it and requires drive-ins to pay royalties. However, Loew’s Theaters (owned by MGM Pictures) convinces a Boston circuit court that a ramp built into the ground isn’t an invention, it’s landscaping, and Hollingshead’s patent becomes unenforceable. With drive-ins now public domain, the industry undergoes a growth spurt.
June 1938: Just over a dozen ozones are operating nationwide
1941: RCA develops the in-car speaker, which by the mid- to late ’40s becomes commonplace.
1942: Around 100 drive-ins operate across 27 states.
1948: Around 820 drive-ins are in the U.S. and Canada, 44 of them in California.
June 3, 1948: Former Navy pilot Edward Brown Jr. opens the first Fly-In Drive-In Theatre, with room for 500 cars and 25 airplanes. Located next to a New Jersey airport, the planes can taxi to the last two rows (though a jeep is needed to tow planes back to the airfield after showings).
1949: The Drive-In Movie Association lobbies against the Daylight Saving Time movement, claiming parents won’t take their families out for showings starting as late as ten p.m. By 1964, DST would be in full swing across America, though West Coast ozones say they’re hardest hit by the new late showtimes.
1950: At a time when around 3500 drive-ins operate in the U.S., in-car heaters are introduced, enabling year-round showings.
1954: Autoscope drive-ins feature a screen for each car.
1955: RCA sells a complete drive-in package (with its own financing), including a sound sys- tem, projection equipment, and lights to mark the parking-lot pathways.
1957: Concession stands generate important revenue, as do “free for children” admission poli- cies (the latter heavily protested by the film industry, which feels this “cheapens” their pres- tigious product). Most drive-ins utilize fondly recalled intermission films featuring singing snacks, dancing hot dogs, and countdown clocks, popularized by filmmakers at the Filmack Company.
1958: The U.S. has approximately 4000 drive- in theaters, while Canada has around 40. Que- bec has none because the province has banned them on the advice of the Catholic Church, which calls ozones “pits of iniquity and sinful excess.”
1960: In Texas, a few drive-ins have horseback hitching-posts. The Theater Motel in Brattle- boro, Vermont, rents rooms facing the screen and wired for sound.
1967: California has its all-time peak of around 223 operating drive-in theaters.
Late ’60s–early ’70s: Thanks to a series of law- suits, the big film companies no longer hold a monopoly on distribution and drive-ins are able to get more first-run A-list features. Some ozones show racier fare not suited for most suburban hardtop theaters, a few eventually going X-rated. A handful of drive-in owners take to making their own films geared specifically for outdoor screens, such as Bob Lippert Sr., who runs a chain of 23 drive-ins from Oregon to Holly- wood (he once owned San Diego’s Cinerama). Lippert produces nearly 200 movies for his chain, including Jungle Goddess, Treasure of Monte Cristo, Tales of Robin Hood, and Mask of the Dragon.
1973: AM radio transmission of movie sound becomes practical thanks to innovations by Cin- ema Radio, a company started by Fred J. Schwartz to combat poor drive-in audio. At the time, an estimated 97 percent of cars have AM radios.
1978–1988: Over 1000 outdoor screens close. Reasons include land value increases that make selling for redevelopment attractive financially, aging owners wishing to retire, decaying prop- erties, the increasing popularity of malls and multiplexes, and the home-video explosion. Many drive-in lots become strip-malls containing, ironically enough, video stores
1982: Around 2130 drive-ins still standing.
1987: Around 1000 drive-ins operating.
1990: Only about 900 drive-ins remain open.
December 1997: 815 outdoor screens remain.
1999: United Drive-In Theatre Owners association formed.
June 2005: 419 drive-ins operate nationwide.
Present: In the past 15 years, around 40 drive-in theaters have reopened and about two dozen new ones have been built. At this writing, California has 21 drive- ins operating with a total of 50 screens. The owners of the South Bay Drive-In, De Anza, will have a 50th- anniversary reopening ceremony August 5 for their four-screen Mission Drive-In in Pomona (now the Mission Tiki), with live bands, a hot rod show, vendor booths, and all-night cult movies. “The theater got very run-down, but I completely redesigned it and refurbished the mar- quee to reflect the same tiki theme as the old Del Mar Drive-In,” says Teri Oldknow. “I really loved that place. It totally inspired me to make over the one in Pomona, with the same great ’50s patio-culture theme.