Headed to the Drive-In: How the Movies and Motoring Got Together
It was June 6, 1933 when the nation’s first drive-in movie theater opened. Originally called “park-in” theaters, the notion of moving going in an automobile came from Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden, N.J. It was the worst year of the Great Depression and yet it was the first year for the Mount Airy Toyota car brand.
Going to the movies was something at least relatively affordable for young folks and families.
“Advertising it as entertainment for the whole family, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar,” the History Channel writes on its blog.
With the price of inflation, that single dollar amounts to about $18 today.
Drive-in movie theaters may be responsible for helping drive the ability to listen to music in your car today. RCA developed the first in-car speaker in 1941.
By 1949, Hollingshead’s patent was overturned, and drive-in theaters gained enormous popularity all over the country.
“The popularity of the drive-in spiked after World War II and reached its heyday in the late 1950s to mid-60s, with some 5,000 theaters across the country,” writes the History Channel. “Drive-ins became an icon of American culture, and a typical weekend destination not just for parents and children but also for teenage couples seeking some privacy.”
Two of the smallest drive-ins in the 1950s were Highway Drive-In in Bamberg, S.C., which had room for 50 cars, and Twilight Drive-In in Nakina, N.C., which had room for 60 cars. In comparison, theaters in Michigan and Texas held 3,000. Mount Airy once even had its own drive-in, the Bright Leaf, that opened in 1955 and held 300 cars.
Today there aren’t many drive-in theaters left, but just about an hour away, in Eden, N.C. is one of the remaining few. The Eden Drive-In has been open since 1949. There’s parking for 200 cars, and visitors still pick up the movie’s audio on their FM radios. A little more than an hour in the opposite direction and across the Virginia border is Park Place Drive-In, which also features a miniature golf course and ice cream shop.
Can’t make it to the drive-in but still want a bit of cinema history? Mount Airy’s Earl Theatre was one of the premiere sites for Gone With the Wind in 1939 and Andy Griffith used to go to movies there as a child.