17 vintage photos from the heyday of drive-in movie theatres

Bettmann/ GettyDrive-in theatres got their start in 1933.
  • In 1933, Richard Hollingshead invented, designed, and opened the first drive-in movie theatre in New Jersey.
  • By the ’50s and ’60s, drive-ins popped up all over the country.
  • They were popular places to take the family or a date to enjoy a movie and snacks.

There are a few things that are quintessentially American, and drive-in movie theatres is one.

Invented in the US, drive-in theatres reached their peak popularity right after World War II during the ’50s and ’60s, allowing guests to enjoy B movies in a giant parking lot, under the stars and in the comfort of their cars.

Keep reading to take a look back at one of America’s best moviegoing experiences and to learn how it reached its demise.

The first drive-in movie theatre opened in 1933 in New Jersey.

Bettmann/ GettyDrive-in sign at the front entrance.

Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager, set out to create a unique movie viewing experience after his mother complained about uncomfortable theatre seats. His answer was to allow people to watch a movie in the comfort of their cars. In 1933, he opened the first drive-in called Park-In Theatres, Inc.

Hollingshead charged only 25 cents per car and per person to view a movie under the stars.

Allan Grant/ GettyDrive-in in 1948.

The first movie Hollingshead showed was a British comedy called “Wives Beware.”

Not only did Hollingshead reinvent movie watching, but he also invented a multi-level ramping system so that each car could see the screen.

Popperfoto/ GettyDrive-in theatre in the ’30s.

Hollingshead patented his idea and design in 1933 but it was overturned in 1949.

Drive-in theatres quickly became popular, and by 1949, Hollingshead’s innovative idea spread throughout the country.

Hulton Archives/ GettyDrive-in theatre offering Sunday service in 1953.

“Drive-ins started to really take off in the ’50s,” Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told The Smithsonian. “They offered family entertainment. People could sit in their cars, they could bring their babies, they could smoke. Drive-ins offered more flexibility than indoor theatres.”

By 1958, there were 4,063 drive-in theatres nationwide.

Bettmann/ GettyDrive-in theatre in 1951.

Today, there are only a few hundred left in the US.

All-Weather Drive-In in upstate New York was one of the biggest theatres at the time.

New York Times Co./ GettyDrive-in theatre in the ’50s.

All-Weather Drive-In could accommodate 2,500 cars at one time on a 28-acre lot.

But it was in-car speakers that helped drive-ins become extremely popular.

Allan Grant/ GettySpeakers stretching into cars in the ’50s.

At this drive-in, they used an accordion-like arm to stretch speakers into cars so moviegoers could actually hear the film from the comfort of their vehicles.

Eventually, clip-on speakers were used, allowing passengers to hear the movie.

Hulton Archive/ GettyAttendant hands speakers to the driver in the ’50s.

Eventually, drivers were able to switch to an FM radio station to hear the movie playing in front of them.

The drive-in theatre was originally advertised as a place for the whole family to enjoy.

Allan Grant/ GettyFamily at the drive-in theatre in the ’60s.

It was the perfect family outing, especially for younger children who couldn’t sit through an entire movie in a theatre.

Some drive-ins even had playgrounds at the foot of the screens for children to entertain themselves.

Allan Grant/ GettyPlayground in the ’50s.

All-Weather Drive-In was one such theatre that had a playground.

Others even had bottle warming stations to help mothers and children better enjoy the movie.

Francis Miller/ GettyBottle warming station at a drive-in.

Here, a couple is warming a bottle for their baby to drink during the movie.

For those without families, drive-ins also became a popular date destination.

Rolls Press/ Popperfoto/ GettyA couple at the drive-in.

Dinner and a movie have always been a popular date option, but drive-ins offered a unique experience for couples.

Privacy was one of the best features of drive-in theatres.

American Stock Archives/ GettyCouple making out at a drive-in.

For many, watching a movie from the comfort of your car actually meant watching a movie from the privacy of your car.

Another great feature of drive-ins was the food options.

Michel Ochs Archives/ GettyDrive-in theatre in San Francisco in 1973.

Sure, movie theatres today have concession stands, but drive-ins had more diverse options and some even had full-service restaurants.

Attendants even served food directly to guests’ cars.

Bettmann/ GettyService in a drive-in.

Today, AMC has implemented a new full-service option at some theatres, but it’s in a traditional theatre setting and not in a vintage car.

But the star of the drive-in was, of course, the movies themselves.

Allan Grant/ GettyTaking orders in 1948.

Throughout its heyday, drive-in theatres would often show B movies, independent films, and rarely the big blockbuster hits. Eventually, as drive-ins decreased in popularity, they started showing X-rated films.

Although popular throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the number of drive-ins greatly reduced.

Newsday LLC/ GettyDrive-in theatre in 1973.

With the rising cost of suburban land and the increasing popularity of home movie watching, drive-in theatres greatly diminished throughout the country. Although there are a few hundred left, drive-ins are now a thing of the past.

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