Today marks the 79th birthday of the drive-in theatre! The drive-in phenomenon began on June 6, 1933, when businessman Richard M. Hollingsworth, Jr. opened the first official drive-in theatre in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingsworth, a manufacturer of automobile waxes and polishes, first experimented in his driveway with a sheet stretched between two trees, a Kodak projector mounted on his car, a radio and a sprinkler to simulate rain. He took his experiment to another level and designed slanted car ramps, developed a lot plan, built a large screen and projection booth and added a large public address speaker above the screen. Once other amateur businessmen caught wind of Hollingsworth’s prototype and expanded upon it, the American drive-in phenomenon was born.
As a fusion of America’s romances with the motion picture and the automobile, the drive-in theatre phenomenon captured the public’s imagination, from families looking to enjoy a nice, affordable outing to teenagers looking to enjoy some heavy petting with their sweethearts in the backseats of their cars. Today, the drive-in is a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time and still a fun, enjoyable thing to do on a warm summer night.
On a personal level, drive-in theatres are very dear to me. I had so much fun researching the history of the drive-in and visiting theatres a few years ago when I wrote an article on the history of Westmoreland County, PA drive-ins and subsequently put together an exhibit celebrating Pennsylvania drive-in theatres. I met some great people along the way, too. Those opportunities really endeared this cultural icon to my heart. There is just something so magical about sitting in your outside under the stars in your car or on a blanket on a warm summer night and enjoying a movie on the big screen. The simple things in life are what are truly enjoyable.
Sadly, the number of operating drive-in theatres continues to dwindle each year. In 1958, there were a record 4,063 drive-ins open throughout the United States. As of 2011, only 366 of these roadside survivors that remain operational, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Here in Pennsylvania, we are down to only about 30 that are open this season. Last year we lost the Hi-Way Drive-in along the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) in Latrobe. I am heartbroken every time I drive past the CVS that now sits in front of where the screen used to stand. I can’t stress enough how important it is to support local drive-ins with your patronage. If we don’t continue to support the drive-in theatre, I fear it won’t be around to celebrate its centennial.
One of my goals is to eventually visit all of the surviving drive-in theatres in Pennsylvania. I can’t wait hit the road this summer and head to the drive-in with my blanket and my dad’s vintage radio in hand, where I’ll munch on some snack bar popcorn and enjoy watching some movies under the stars.