The History of Drive-in Movie Theaters

Drive-in theaters were a fixture of the American landscape for many decades.

The first drive-in theater was opened by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J., in the summer of 1933. The inaugural audience arrived the evening of June 6 and paid 25 cents per car – as well as 25 cents per person – to see the British comedy Wives Beware. And while the movie itself has long since been forgotten, the innovative method for viewing the film was about to catch fire. After a brief lull, that is. While several drive-ins would open in the coming months and years, American entry into World War II caused a nation at war to shift its attention to more pressing matters. 

But like many things post WWII, the end of the war saw a boom in drive-in theaters. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the growth of the drive-in was helped by the growing popularity of… the automobile. As soldiers returned home and Americans rebuilt from war and the depression that preceded it, the automobile boomed. And with it came a growing network of roads and highways, allowing families to move from dense urban centers to the more spacious suburbs. And land in the suburbs was of course more plentiful and affordable, allowing for the development of more drive-ins. This all led to the halcyon days of the drive-in theater: the mid 1950’s to mid 60’s. At its peak, the number of outdoor screens across the country numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000. Whether it was a family friendly outing or a young couple seeking a bit of privacy, the drive-in flourished. 

It wasn’t just the viewing public that went to the drive-in however. The biggest celebrities of the day got in on the action too. Movie stars would make appearances at drive-ins to promote their movies and elevate their own profiles. This was particularly true of drive-ins in Southern California, which benefited from being close to all of the major movie studios. Whether it was a young Raquel Welch or the comedy duo Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Western icons Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, celebrities of all stripes would show up at the drive-in to much fanfare. The popularity of the drive-in simply couldn’t be ignored. But it wasn’t all about publicity all the time. Like young couples suffering from a bit of claustrophobia, celebrities also loved the privacy and anonymity of the drive-in. Some of the biggest stars of the day, from Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and even Elvis himself were known to head to the drive-in to watch films unnoticed. 

drive in theater images

But the party wouldn’t last forever. There were many reasons that drive-ins slowly disappeared from the American landscape, beginning with urban sprawl of the 1970’s. Once rural land simply became more valuable as more people fanned out from cities, causing the several acres required for a successful drive-in to be put to more productive uses. The oil crisis of the early 70’s also played a role. The automobile evolved from a luxurious status symbol to a more frugal, utilitarian vehicle due to the rising price of fuel, putting quite a damper on the drive-in experience. There were other developments, too. The growth in the VCR in the 1980’s allowed would-be movie goers to watch their favorite films from the comfort of their own home. All told, it spelled doom for the drive-in movie theater. 

While there are an estimated 300 drive-in theaters still in use in the United States, they tend to be passion projects that offer a novel experience that harkens back to a bygone era. That said, the one-time popularity of the drive-in theater – and their influence on popular culture – would be difficult to overstate. Through this decline of drive in theatres, sparked the popularity of vintage drive in movie posters. To this day there is still a high demand for these timeless prints, that remind us of the past. To that end, we pay tribute to the drive-in with these nostalgic images by photographer John Margolies. 

And if you’re looking for vintage movie posters to go alongside your drive-in print, you can find them here. Why not add a classic Americana themed poster to complete the stylish look.
Contact the team at livestock framing to start framing your vintage drive in theater images. 

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