On June 6, 1933, Richard Hollingshead created a new part of American culture: the drive-in theater. He had theorized that there were four important parts to America culture in the 30s: food, clothing, cars, and movies. While in the Great Depression, people still tried to go to the movies. The first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey.

In 1946, there were around 96 drive-in theaters in America. This number only increased in following years as they were used to help new suburbs flourish. By planting them in these suburbs, advertisers could tell people that they no longer needed to go to the city for the movies. The drive-ins also attempted to assimilate things that the normal theaters, nicknamed “hard tops,” such as bottle warmers, car heaters, rain away shields, playgrounds, small swimming pools, and dance floors were just some of the things that could be at one of these theaters. Things like these also helped parents bring their children along with them inciting babysitters to picket drive-in theaters in ’48 and ’49 due to a loss of business.

Drive-ins also brought in a mainstay of American culture: pizza. Pizza was first introduced in drive-ins when they began to also offer meals, as well as snacks. The audience would often be greeted by a small commercial during the intermission(s) of the two or three films normally playing at the theater. The commercial would count down how much more time they had for concessions, and ending with “Last Call for Refreshment Time!”

Originally the only films that drive-ins could get were ones that were over twelve months old, because the studios had contracts with the “hard tops.” The studios began to produce low-budget films that were also shown at drive-ins. However, in the late 1950s, the demographic of the audience had changed.

A producer, Herman Cohen, noticed that he had suddenly gotten high returns on a 1956 film that had bombed in the “hard tops.” He was mystified and decided to go on a road trip stopping at the drive-ins to see what kind of people were watching his film. He found that 9 out of 10 were teenagers. This led him to create the first teen-oriented horror film, I Was A Teenage Werewolf in 1957. This movie created the studio American International Pictures that was to solely create films for the drive-ins.

American International Pictures and other drive-in movie producers used an odd method to create films for their teenage demographic. They went to the drive-ins and asked them whether they would be interested in purchasing a movie with a certain title, say The Beast With A Million Eyes. The theaters would tell them yes or no. They’d go with that and make a poster, and present that to the theaters. Once again they asked them if they would buy it. If enough theaters said yes then they would began scripting the film and then filming it. This process created such wonderfully awful films as: It Conquered the World, with Lee Van Cleef; The Terror, which was supposedly shot in four days under five directors; Blood Feast, one of the first splatter/serial killer films; and I Drink Your Blood, which was described by Gary D. Rhodes as an “LSD-horror picture” and was the first movie to receive an X-Rating for violence by the MPAA.

In the early 1970s, the theaters began to face problems with a loss of audience. They began to do showings of pornographic films, as well as starting to do things like all-night Elvis films and all-night old known films. In 1975, Hollingshead, the creator of the drive-in, was 75 years old. He hadn’t made much off his patent that he got 1933, because it had expired before the business had really boomed. He was asked in an interview if he still went to the drive-in, and he replied that he did with his wife. When asked what sort of films he saw, he replied that the only kind that he could find were the sex pictures but that it was all right because those were his favorites anyway.

About a month after his death, the Supreme Court ruled that city ordinances could not stop drive-ins from showing pornographic films, which is thought by some as part of the death of the drive-in theater.

Since then, many of the drive-in theaters have been selling their prime locations to places like Wal-Mart and other stores. Some owners have been trying to sell their old theaters to those that would continue the business, rather than have it destroyed.

In 1958, it was estimated that there were 4,063 drive-in theaters. In the early 1970s, there were around 3,500 theaters. Currently, according to the newly established United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA) there are 433 theaters in the States. They also claim that drive-ins are on an “upswing… [and are] alive and well.”

Originally published with a description of the book Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana on the Sooner Information Network.
Lecture on the Drive-In - Gary D. Rhodes
Drive-Ins.com - http://www.drive-ins.com.
United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association - http://www.driveintheatre-ownersassociation.org.