This week we celebrate the invention of an all-American institution: the movie drive-in or topless movie theater.
In the midst of a catastrophic economic depression, a chemical manufacturer invented and patented something implausibly innovative: a place at which people could drive in, park their cars and watch a movie. And so the drive-in movie theater was born.
The first one opened on June 3, 1933 in Camden, N.J. (where else?!) and showed “Wife Beware,” a British comedy starring Adolphe Menjou, on its 60-foot wide screen. The “theater” was comprised of seven semi-circular rows of parking spaces with 50-foot wide aisles and that would accommodate 400 cars.
Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr., the intrepid inventor of the drive-in theater, thought so much of his idea that he took out a patent on its design: a clam-shell shaped parking lot, terraced parking rows and earthen ramps that tilted the cars upward.
With the patent as his company’s key asset, Park-In Theatres offered blueprints and franchises to other movie exhibitors. Hollingshead successfully protected his invention through a series of patent infringement lawsuits, though ultimately was defeated by the Loew’s theater chain.
While initially prevailing in his action against Loew’s for patent infringement, on appeal a Federal Circuit Court in 1949 ruled that Hollingshead’s invention was landscaping and therefore not patentable.
Initially, in the 30s, the growth of drive-ins was hindered by the Great Depression; gas, tire and automobile restrictions imposed by World War II slowed later development. But beginning in the 1950s, the number of U.S. drive-ins exploded.
In 1948 there were 820 “ozoners,” as they were often called. A decade later, there were 4,700. But by 1976, the number had dwindled to 3,800. It didn’t take a statistician to understand something was happening. And for drive-in operators, what was happening could not be seen as good news.
Today there are fewer than 350 drive-in movie theaters nationwide; less than 10 percent of all theatrical movie houses.