It’s the 80th anniversary of the drive-in movie theater. From LIFE magazine:
It’s been 80 years since a New Jersey auto-parts store manager named Richard Hollingshead Jr. hit upon the idea of a drive-in theater. The wonder of Hollingshead’s concept, of course — as with all of the world’s greatest, most inspired, most life-affirming inventions — is that, despite how obvious it seems in retrospect, no one had thought of it before. Or, if anyone did think of it before, they hadn’t bothered to get a patent on the idea, as Hollingshead did on May 16, 1933. And no one had the wherewithal to actually envision, build and then open to the public this modern marvel, as Hollingshead and three other investors did when they cut the ribbon on the world’s first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933.
On the anniversary of that landmark night 80 years ago, LIFE.com offers a series of photos celebrating the ingenious confluence of two of America’s abiding obsessions: movies and cars.
At the height of its popularity, there were more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters throughout the country. Today less than 400 remain in business.
There are three within 30 minutes of my home.
When I tell this to people who live in Connecticut, they are often surprised. Three drive-in movie theaters within half an hour of their homes and no one seems to know.
I don’t understand it.
I consider these drive-in movie theaters a blessing.
When I was a boy, my parents took us to the drive-in movie theater in Mendon, Massachusetts. It is one of two drive-in movie theaters in Massachusetts that remains open today. When I was a child, the theater charged by the person, so my father would stuff us into the trunk and sneak us in to save a few bucks.
Today the theater charges $25 per car.
No sneaking in anymore.
We would always arrive extremely early and eat a picnic dinner before the show. We’d toss a football around in front of the massive screen and watch the stars appear in the sky, one by one, until it was dark enough to show the first movie.
When the film began, we’d climb atop the hood of the car and lean back against the windshield, wrapped in sleeping bags. If the temperature dropped too low, my father would start the car and warm us up by the heat of the engine.
There was also a drive-in theater called The Rustic in North Smithfield, Rhode Island that showed rated X movies. The screen directed away from the street, tempting passersby to try to catch a glimpse of that film as they sped down route 146. The Rustic is also still in operation today, though apparently they have dispensed with their more racy film choices.
When Clara was an infant, Elysha and I spent our summer at the drive in, watching movie after movie while she slept soundly in the backseat. We saw more than 20 movies that year, exceeding my goal of a dozen and proving to naysayers that a child did not spell the end to our movie going past time.
Clara is four years old now and considers almost every movie, regardless of age range, too frightening to watch, so it might be a while before we bring her and Charlie back to the drive-in.