Richard M. Hollingshead, a sales manager from Camdem, New Jersey, designed the first drive-in theater in his backyard using a sheet, a radio and a projector. Arranging these items into a makeshift outdoor theater, Hollingshead set up a variety of scenarios to help predict problems that could arise from the design. He replicated situations that ranged from bad weather to sound interference to car position. Once Hollingshead concluded his tests, he went to work on realizing his dream. The first drive-in theater officially opened Tuesday June 6, 1933, showing the movie, “Wife Beware.” Read more.
Over time, what was once a landscape of 5,000 drive-in movie theaters across America has dwindled down to less than 500. In North Carolina, 205 drive-in movie theaters have closed their screens, and there are only five remaining in the state. I recently visited Bill’s Belmont Drive-in Movie Theatre; it re-opened on August 9, 2013, for the first time since October 2012; some of the staff had been up since 5 AM preparing. The theater has been a landmark since 1946, and in 1981 Bill and Peggy Lawing purchased the drive-in; it’s been in the family ever since. Sadly, both Bill and Peggy are no longer with us, but their children carry on their parent’s love and care of the drive-in keeping it alive to preserve the history and be a part of the community
It was a warm evening with threatening skies, but the weather held out. I briefly thought of the scene from the movie Twister where the drive-in is in its path. I also was thinking about what it would have been to like to live during the time they were really in their height; like in the movie Grease when Danny takes Sandy on a date to the drive-in. There were families throwing the frisbee down in front of the screen waiting for the movie to start as cars meandered in finding a place to park and then loading up on concessions. It’s a pretty good deal at $10/car plus whatever food you want covers two to three movies for your carload compared to the indoor movie theater where there is a per person/per movie charge; this is a great value for a family. There is room for 300 cars; I estimate they had a turn-out of around a 100.
I was able to peek inside the film booth – there is a certain beauty to old the machinery. Unfortunately, I learned it is in danger of becoming a relic. Next year, all 35mm film will be required to go digital. This is an extra burden and expense for these operations to add a digital projector. This will likely force even more drive-ins out of business with the cost of these projectors running anywhere from $70,000 to $144,000.
Project Drive-In & Kickstarter
Project Drive-in – Honda is helping bring awareness to save this American icon by donating five projectors to drive-ins movie theaters that receive the most votes. Go to their site to vote for your favorite drive-in movie theater and make a donation if you can. Another option to help save the drive-in would be to initiate a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds online. The Historic Weirs Drive-in in Orlando, Fla. has a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their projector.
North Carolina Drive-In Movie Theaters
Drive-In Movie Theaters Nationwide
Look for Drive-ins in your area; you can also see how many have closed.
What are your favorite memories of the drive-in?