The drive-in theater may today seem like nothing more than another fad, but during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s it provided a revenue opportunity and distribution center for a number of Hollywood films that might otherwise have never been made. It is difficult to find these once- common pieces of Americana today, and they are likely one fad unlikely to make a comeback due to the expenses involved.
The very first drive-in theater was created by a man named Richard Hollingshead in 1933 in Riverton, New Jersey. Officially, Hollingshead was granted a patent for what was known as a "ramp drive-in-system." That first drive-in theater seated 400 cars. The novelty was perhaps too much for those strapped by a lack of cash during the height of the Great Depression, and it would not be until the troops came home from World War II that the drive-in movie theater would take off.
The rise in popularity of the drive-in theater has been analyzed endlessly, but it was an article in the April 1944 edition of the Motion Picture Herald that probably summed up the appeal of the drive-in theater at that particular time and place most accurately. According to the Herald, the drive-in theater offered the joy of the release from gas rationing during the war, the joy of the availability of all-beef hot dogs, the ability for teenagers to pursue their amorous dreams and the necessity of fresh air after years of propaganda.
The features of the drive-in movie theater are many. The enormous screen would today be considered far larger than the average screen inside a traditional cinema, though at the time there was not that much of a difference. People arriving at a drive-in would pull into a parking space next to mounted speaker, which they would then fasten to their rolled-down window. Just like interior movie theaters, the drive-in had a busy concession stand. Some drive-ins catered to families by having a playground complete with swings and jungle gyms just in front of the screen.
One of the most successful features of the drive-in theater was that it offered both privacy and lounging area. The effect of this privacy was multiple. For one thing, it put an end to the necessity of dressing up to go to the movies. Parents could wear their most comfortable clothing, and it was not unusual for kids to show up wearing pajamas, since so many would fall asleep before the movie even ended. Another effect of the combination of privacy was that the drive-in became a place where teenagers could explore their burgeoning passions in a way that was impossible inside a regular theater.
The drive-in theater benefited the movie industry in general, but it was the horror and science fiction movie genres that really received the most benefit. Although the family unit was a major consumer of drive-in movies, by far the biggest audience was teenagers. Scary movies were ideal for teenage boys who wanted frightened teenage girls to jump into their arms. As a result, the low-budget monster movie genre experienced a boon through the popularity of drive-in theaters.
The number of drive-in theaters in America exploded between 1945 and 1955. While there were only about 300 drive-in movie theaters in 1945, by 1955 the number had grown to over 4,000. Not coincidentally, this same 10-year period also witnessed the number of traditional theaters shrinking. Partially, this was due to the introduction of television, but it also had to do with the fact that by 1955 the drive-in theater had become more reputable and family-friendly. Where once the only movies shown were old films of poor quality, by the mid-1950s, drive-ins were showing big-budget first-run films.
The collapse of the drive-in theater industry has been blamed on many aspects of society. One theory has it that the energy crisis of the 1970s sucked the appeal from the drive-in. Another theory is that the rising cost of real estate made them too expensive in comparison to the falling profits. Speculation has also been forwarded that cable TV revolution negatively impacted the kinds of movies that by the 1970s were the sole domain of the drive-in. The multiplex business model of having five, 10 or even more than 20 theaters in a single location clearly provides a more profitable exploitation of expanse of real estate that might otherwise be used to build a two-screen drive-in.