The Drive-in Theater Turns 75

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The drive-in movie theater turns 75 on June 6.

Smithsonian Magazine has a nice overview of the history and appeal of this Anerican icon. 

On June 6, 2008 the flag flying over the U.S. Capitol will commemorate the 75th birthday of a distinctive slice of Americana: the drive-in movie theater.

It was on that day in 1933 that Richard Hollingshead opened the first theater for the auto-bound in Camden, N.J. People paid 25 cents per car as well as per person to see the British comedy Wives Beware under the stars.

The concept of showing movies outdoors wasn’t novel; people often watched silent films on screens set up at beaches or other places boasting an abundance of sky. However, it took an auto-parts salesman such as Hollingshead to see the genius in giving a car-loving society one more activity they could do in their vehicles.

He first conceived the drive-in as the answer to a problem. “His mother was—how shall I say it?—rather large for indoor theater seats,” said Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. “So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.”

From that humble and slightly TMI beginning, the drive-in theater swelled to more than 4,000 screens at its peak in the 1950s. The advent of TV and the pressure of rising land values drove most of them out of business by the late 90s. Since then however, there has been a resurgence in interest, with the number of screens stabilizing and then rising once again.

Go, and learn more about the past, present and future of a movie institution.