The first one in the nation was the brainchild of a young man named Richard Hollingshead Jr., a Riverton, NJ native.
Hollingshead is said to have gotten the idea for a drive-in theater from his mother. His mother was a large woman who was uncomfortable in the seats at regular movie theaters. Hollingshead got an idea to help his mother that would combine his two main interests: cars and movies. He worked as a sales manager at his dad's store, Whiz Auto Products.
His test bed for the theater was his own driveway where he took a 1928 Kodak movie projector and mounted it on the hood of his car. For a movie screen, he nailed a sheet to the trees in his backyard. He placed a radio behind the screen to test for sound.
The challenge was figuring out how a person in a car parked behind another car could see the screen. Hollingshead tinkered with the spacing of the cars and put blocks under the front wheels. Eventually, he was able to build ramps that, when properly spaced apart, allowed every person to see the full screen.
In May 1933, Hollingshead got a patent for his drive-in theater, obtained funding and formed a company called Park-In Theaters, Inc.
After the first drive-in opened in 1933, more than forty drive-in theaters were opened over the years throughout New Jersey. The Newark Drive-In, with spaces for 2,400 cars, was the fifth largest drive-in theater in the nation.
An interesting innovation was the combination drive-in and fly-in theater. On June 3, 1948, Edward Brown, Jr. opened the first theater for cars and small planes. Ed Brown's Drive-In and Fly-In of Asbury Park, New Jersey had the capacity for 500 cars and 25 airplanes. An airfield was placed next to the drive-in and planes would taxi to the last row of the theater. When the movies were over, Brown provided a tow for the planes to be brought back to the airfield.
|The Ten Commandments (1956) at the drive-in (from Life magazine)|
In the 1970s, rising property values made the land used for drive-ins more profitable for other things. Add to that the fact that drive-ins often showed "B" movies (rather than the newest top releases), cable television and videocassettes for movies at home, and the business went into deep decline.
By 2003, the number of drive-ins in the U.S. was 432 and they were located largely in the warmer southern states where a longer season for outdoor movies was possible.
Plans had been announced to open a drive-in theater in Wall Township, NJ. The Wall Drive-In Theatre, located at the Wall Township Speedway, was set to be open from April to October when the racetrack is not in use and would have parking for 650 vehicles with an 80-foot screen and sound provided through car radios.
** CORRECTION As our first commenter notes, the Delsea Drive-In is alive and well and showing as of today the 4 top movies (not B-films) delseadrive-in.com