Whatever Happened to Drive-in Movie Theaters?

The drive-in movie theater is a nostalgic symbol of the mid-20th century. Although we still have regular movie theaters, it’s a little odd that drive-in movie theaters are few and far in between, so much so that they’re considered a bit of a novelty these days. So, what happened? Read on to learn more about the rise and fall of the drive-in movie theater.

How Drive-in Theaters Got Their Start

The history of drive-in movie theaters goes back, perhaps surprisingly, to near the beginning of cinema itself. While silent films got their start in the 1890s, the first drive-in theater concept popped up in New Mexico in 1915, just as cars themselves were gaining ground with consumers. This outdoor theater, the Theatre de Guadalupe, wasn’t designed specifically for cars, and in fact, it boasted more seats behind the makeshift parking lot. It wasn’t until 1921 that the first dedicated drive-in was opened in Texas, but again, this theater was more makeshift than permanent drive-in.

Drive-in Theaters Gain in Popularity

The east coast, and New Jersey in particular, played a large role in making drive-in theaters a popular attraction. In the 1930s, Businessman Richard Hollingshead, Jr. patented a drive-in concept and opened up his own theater in Pennsauken Township. The theater, which sadly no longer exists, was the first of its kind to make use of drive-up ramps, which allow the occupants a better view of the screen. While Hollingshead is widely considered to be the one who perfected the drive-in theater, he sold the theater after only three years, and his patent was overturned in the 1940s. By the 1950s and ‘60s, drive-ins were at their most popular, with about 4,000 drive-ins open across the country.

The Decline of Drive-in Theaters

Nothing good can last forever, and just as quickly as drive-in theaters became popular, they started losing customers. There doesn’t seem to be any one main reason why this happened, but there are plenty of factors that caused them to go into decline. Many say that the oil crisis during the 1970s – and the subsequent spike in gas prices – made families less likely to go out driving for their entertainment. Further, the advent of VCRs meant that, for the first time, families could enjoy films at any time in the comfort of their own homes. As drive-in theaters lost customers, they began running more controversial, less family-friendly programming, which led to some backlash.

Down, But Not Out

While drive-in theaters have gone through a drastic decline in the past 40 years, they’re not completely dead. Actually, a good handful of them exist – about 300 or so in the United States. Will they ever become as popular as they once were? Almost assuredly not. With regular cinemas facing their own battles against the growing home entertainment market, the more niche drive-in theaters have an even tougher time selling tickets and drawing crowds. That said, drive-ins are still a novelty, a throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s, when going to the movies was a purer experience. As long as that’s true, there will probably be a drive-in theater open somewhere near you.

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