The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters

Anyone born and raised in the 50s or 60s probably has fond memories of the local drive-in theater. Drive-in cinemas are iconic elements of the mid-20th century. Composed of outdoor parking lots equipped with massive projection screens, drive-in theaters were a cultural sensation.

First Steps

The earliest known drive-in cinema was an auditorium equipped for over 40 vehicles, built in New Mexico in 1915. It was quite short-lived, though, closing down the next year.

Two decades later, Richard Hollingshead Jr. patented the first modern drive-in theater design, complete with ramps and screens.

The first examples had a lot of issues getting the sound right, though. It was initially emitted from behind the screen, which was troublesome for customers in the back. Shortly before WW2, though, RCA created in-car speakers that largely resolved the issue.

The industry took a short breather during the war, coming back with a vengeance afterward.

Drive-In Golden Age

In the post-war years, more and more people had their own vehicles. Drive-in theaters became wildly popular across America, with Baby Boom families no longer having to ration gas. 

Between 1947 and 1951, the number of drive-in cinemas shot up by over 2600% (from 155 to more than 4,000). It was the Golden Age of the drive-in cinema.

Rural America, in particular, fell in love with this unique way of enjoying films. These cinemas were relatively inexpensive to build, maintain, and visit. They were often the only cinema in smaller towns. People could bring their children along and keep them in the car (sometimes even in pajamas). It was the quintessential American movie-going experience.

Modern Revivals

All trends are destined to one day make a comeback. And drive-ins are no exception. The sheer nostalgia that drive-in theaters caused, in those who grew up around them, creating demand for these venues. In the late 90s and 2000s, many temporary drive-ins began to pop up in abandoned parking lots. Boutique drive-ins offered nostalgic movie-watching to smaller audiences at a premium price. Today, most new drive-ins have no projectors, using Jumbotrons instead.