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Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair with Drive-In Movie Theaters

Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair with Drive-In Movie Theaters

by Elizabeth McKeon, Liz McKeon, Linda Everett

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When Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. first projected a movie onto a white bedsheet stretched between two trees at his home in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933, little did he know that he was on the verge of creating an entirely new entertainment industry. With America just beginning its romance with the automobile, it's no surprise that the general public found this new


When Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. first projected a movie onto a white bedsheet stretched between two trees at his home in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933, little did he know that he was on the verge of creating an entirely new entertainment industry. With America just beginning its romance with the automobile, it's no surprise that the general public found this new form of moviegoing irresistible. Fun and affordable, the drive-in quickly gained popularity among families with young children. And, of course, the local drive-in was a favorite weekend hangout for teenagers: a place where they could go just to meet friends or take a sweetheart for a romantic evening of movies under the stars. Although drive-ins are no longer as popular as they once were, in many communities a devoted following still seeks out the open-air theaters at twilight.

Cinema Under the Stars"" is a reminder of those wonderful times, as well as a recounting of the history of the drive-in experience. Here is the story, and here are the memories: B movies, concession stands loaded with goodies, screen towers, ticket booths, scratchy speakers, speaker poles, and intermission. It is all here - a nostalgic look at one of America's all-time favorite pastimes.""

Editorial Reviews

If you have fond memories of warm summer evenings spent watching your favorite stars on the giant screen as you relaxed under a canopy of stars of the celestial sort, then Cinema Under The Stars, a delightful celebration of open-air movie going that will bring a rush of warming memories to anyone who grew up going to the drive-in, is for you.
Entertainment Weekly
...[A] loving tribute to the golden age of outdoor cinema....The book is ...packed with fascinating bits...

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Turner Publishing Company
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8.04(w) x 9.97(h) x 0.33(d)

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On his patent application dated August 6, 1932, inventor Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. described his vision of the drive-in movie theater: "My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theater...whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities...wherein the performance, such as a motion picture show or the like, may be seen or heard from a series of automobiles so arranged in relation to the stage or screen, that the successive cars behind each other will not obstruct the view."

Along with his application Hollingshead submitted charts and drawings to further explain his idea in precise detail. After a successful review Hollingshead was issued patent number 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. The term of the patent was good for seventeen years, during which time he would be allowed to collect royalties from anyone who wanted to build and operate his or her own drive-in movie theater.

Hollingshead, along with his cousin Willie Warren Smith, formed Park-In Theaters, Inc. soon after receiving his patent, on June 1, 1933. The concept of an outdoor movie theater was fast becoming a reality for Hollingshead. Little did he know that it was his vision of the drive-in movie theater that would forever alter the American landscape and establish the drive-in as a cultural icon.

The son of a New Jersey manufacturer, Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. began his career working for his father's company, Whiz Auto Products, which produced and sold items used for the care and upkeep of automobiles.

Unchallenged by his general sales manager position, Hollingshead longed to start his own company. He had already decided that it would have to be the kind of business where he would be in control of operations. More importantly, he wanted his business to help promote and sell Whiz Auto Products. Leery of giving out credit, especially during a depression, Hollingshead believed that a "cash only" business would be the safest type to develop.

Looking for ways to achieve his goal, Hollingshead studied the market for inspiration and trends. His informal research led him to conclude that there were certain things that people were not willing to sacrifice during a depression. He made a list: food, clothing, and automobiles. Upon further contemplation, and after spending a night out at a local theater, he added "movies" to his list. The theater's manager confirmed to Hollingshead that many of his customers routinely attended the show despite the economic hardships.

Hollingshead went about developing a deluxe "Hawaiian Village" gas station. The overall design would include thatched roof buildings with gas station pumps resembling small palm trees. Adjacent to this gas station would be a restaurant and outdoor movie theater. It was Hollingshead's belief that his gas station would offer something that none other could. With the choice of a restaurant or outdoor theater, customers could either enjoy a good meal or watch a movie to pass the time while their cars were being serviced.

Realizing that business generally tended to drop off at night, Hollingshead felt confident that his business would become popular with more of an "after hours" crowd. However, as he got deeper into the development of such an establishment, he soon determined that the combination of gas station, restaurant, and outdoor theater would be too cumbersome for one location.

Hollingshead decided to focus all of his attention on developing just the outdoor theater. With movies as popular as they were, he rationalized that there had to be a logical explanation as to why certain segments of the population never attended them. He theorized, "The mother says she's not dressed; the husband doesn't want to put on his shoes; the question is what to do with the kids; then how to find a baby sitter; parking the car is difficult or maybe they have to pay for parking; even the seats in the theater may not be comfortable to contemplate."

With those reasons in mind, Hollingshead assured himself that his idea for a drive-in movie theater had the potential to become an instant commercial success. It would also serve as a practical solution for parents who wanted to attend a movie with their children.

In the driveway of his home at 212 Thomas Avenue in Camden, New Jersey, Hollingshead began phase one of his idea by mounting a 1928 Kodak projector onto the hood of his car. From there he projected the film onto a makeshift screen, which was actually a plain white bed sheet nailed between two trees in his backyard. For sound, an ordinary radio was placed behind the sheet.

As he sat in his car watching the film, Hollingshead decided that his idea was feasible. Continuing on with his experiment, he rolled the car windows up and down to test for sound quality and turned the sprinklers on and off to recreate different weather conditions.

One problem he could already foresee was the positioning of the vehicles so that one would not obstruct another's view once they were lined up in rows. After much deliberation, Hollingshead went about designing a series of ramps that would place the cars at proper angles ideal for optimum viewing. The ramps themselves would be placed on an incline and arranged in a semicircle around the screen.

With the initial design of the theater completed, Hollingshead knew that there still remained some technical details that required his immediate attention. First on his list: secure a vacant lot several acres in size that would be able to hold at least four hundred automobiles. Hollingshead located the perfect spot to erect his drive-in movie theater on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden. Next, he ordered a custom built thirty-by-sixty-foot screen. Lastly, he needed to somehow develop a quality sound system. For that dilemma Hollingshead turned to his neighbor in Camden, the RCA Victor Company.

RCA listened to Hollingshead's idea and came up with what they called "Controlled Directional Sound," claiming that their system would allow every patron the same volume of sound regardless of whether their car was parked in the first row or the last. The sound would be delivered from three central speakers mounted near the screen or placed in various locations around the lot.

Hollingshead also saw the need to develop a contraption that would eliminate any and all obstructions that could potentially block the screen or interfere with the picture. Specifically, he needed a way to eliminate moths and other insects that would be lured toward the white, hot lights of the projector. "In order to eliminate all insects from the path of the light from the motion picture projector to the screen...I provide a funnel-shaped guard directly ahead of the motion picture projector...and from a suitable fan or blower in a small end of the funnel...a clean stream of air passes through the guard funnel...to prevent insects from gathering...or approaching the lens of the projector.

With many of the details nearly completed, Hollingshead was ready to begin construction of his open air theater. Looking for venture capitalists to help him out financially, Hollingshead enlisted the help of his first cousin Willie Warren Smith, who owned and operated a number of parking lots in and around the East Coast area. Together the two men formed Park-in Theaters, Inc. Shortly thereafter other investors joined Hollingshead to help him develop his first drive-in movie theater.

Hollingshead premiered his new outdoor theater on June 6, 1933, just a few weeks after officially receiving his patent. The design of the Camden Drive-in would serve as a blueprint for the many thousands of outdoor theaters that followed. Outlining the drive-in's perimeter was a fence to prevent trespassers from getting a glimpse of the film for free. Planted alongside the fence were an estimated two hundred trees, some as tall as twenty feet.

Near the front entrance stood the ticket booth where cars were stopped as they entered the lot. Once occupants paid the admission fee they parked on a series of inclined ramps positioned in a semicircle in front of the screen. The projection booth was located in the middle of the first row.

On tap for the evening's main feature was Wife Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou. Not considered a first-run release, it nevertheless drew crowds to a packed "house." A variety of short films accompanied the film to round out the evening's entertainment. Admission was twenty-five cents per car and twenty-five cents per person. Three or more in a car were admitted for one dollar.

Coverage of the drive-in's gala grand opening swept across the country. Several news agencies reprinted a statement Hollingshead had made earlier about his new invention and the new benefits it had for the public. "In the Drive-in Theater one may smoke without offending others. People may chat or even partake of refreshments brought in their cars.... The Drive-in theater idea virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theater box. The younger children are not permitted in movie theaters.... Here the whole family welcome...."

Within weeks, problems began cropping up at the Camden Drive-in. Hollingshead became aware that attendance levels, which were perfectly satisfactory on weekend nights, dropped off substantially during the week. He surmised that it was because he was showing the last film at such a late hour. Patrons that had to go to work early the next morning were mostly attending on weekends. Also, neighbors living close proximity to the drive-in complained that the noise emanating from the speakers could be heard from miles away.

In addition to all these concerns, Hollingshead was plagued with the problem of gaining access to first-run movies from major Hollywood studios for a reasonable rental fee. He did not want to continue offering second-run features to his audience. After a noble attempt to get better quality films he soon realized that his battle with the movie studios was futile. He was helpless fighting against the studio's monopoly over film distribution, which usually favored studio-owned indoor movie houses. He was left to show second- and sometimes third-run films or government-made short films.

After two years in the drive-in business, Hollingshead sold his open-air theater in Camden, wanting to spend more time licensing his patent to other would-be drive-in theater owners. However, unbeknownst to Hollingshead, other drive-in theaters had already been built in and around the northeast, in violation of his licensing agreement. Hollingshead filed a number of lawsuits against these new owners for copyright infringement.

Some early drive-ins included Shankweiler's Auto Park, built in 1934, and the Weymouth Drive-in, built in 1936. Out on the west coast, the Pico-Westwood Drive-in, near Los Angeles, opened for business in 1934, as did the Culver City Drive-in. The San Val Drive-in, located in Burbank, California, opened in 1938. None of these sought permission from Hollingshead for use of his patent.

The Weymouth Drive-in in Weymouth, Massachusetts, sought permission not from Hollingshead's company but from the newly formed Drive-in Theater Corporation. Hollingshead brought suit against the Drive-in Theater Corporation and fought hard to obtain the money owed to him. Eventually, Drive-in Theatre Corporation entered into a licensing agreement with Park-in Theaters, Inc. Boxoffice magazine commented, "There are already more lawsuits on drive-in theaters in this territory than there are drive-in localities."

Hollingshead, continuing to file lawsuits against drive-in owners for patent infringement, began to focus his attention on drive-ins built in California. The District Court for the Southern District of California dismissed Hollingshead's claim, stating that a drive-in theater was not an invention that could be patented and thus no infringement had occurred. Upon appeal the Ninth Circuit Court ruled 2-1 that a drive-in was patentable and thus fines could be invoked against owners that didn't have the proper licensing agreement.

Elias M. Loew, owner of the Lynn Drive-in, was one of the few owners who diligently paid royalties to Hollingshead. However, he later brought suit against Park-in Theaters Inc. claiming that Hollingshead and his company did not always go after other drive-in owners who didn't have a licensing agreement. To get out of his contract with Hollingshead, Loew argued that drive-ins were not patentable and that Hollingshead could not legally collect royalties. His argument was thrown out based upon the previous ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court. Refusing to give up, Loew appealed the decision. The First Circuit Court of Appeals listened to Loew's arguments and unanimously ruled in his favor.

Their opinion read, in part, "This arcuate arrangement of parking stalls in a lot is obviously only an adaptation to automobiles of the conventional arrangement of seats in a theater employed since ancient times to enable patrons to see the performance while looking comfortably ahead in a normal sitting position without twisting the body or turning the head...."

Back and forth it went for Hollingshead and his company as they dealt with a hailstorm of litigation. Enraged about the reversal, Hollingshead took his case to the Supreme Court. Years after the court battles began, the high court's final ruling was against Hollingshead. It had been his last chance to seek further legal remedies. After the court's decision Hollingshead let it be known that he had washed his hands of the motion picture industry. "There ought to be an award in the industry for ideas which built it. Like the Oscars. It might stimulate the industry. But as for me, I can assure you I'm not going to think up any more ideas for the motion picture industry. To me, the drive-in stands in the category of the greatest contribution to the industry since sound."

By the late 1930s drive-in theaters, nicknamed "ozoners" by trade magazines, began cropping up around the country. However, the real success of drive-in movie theaters would not be felt for another fifteen years. Owners who saw the potential in owning one of these open-air theaters paved the way for the future.

On the West Coast, weather conditions made it possible to go to the drive-in year-round. It didn't take long for the public to take to the idea of watching a movie from the comforts of their automobile. In 1938 the experience of going to a drive-in was described in Collier's magazine: "Out on Pico Boulevard we located drive-in service as it neared its peak. We drove in through a tollgate, a girl seated in a booth took money for tickets, and we entered the Drive-in Theater. An usher, bearing the badge of his office -- a flashlight -- jumped on the running board and guided the car to a space marked out with white chalk lines. We leaned back and watched the picture shown on the open-air screen. The usher lingered on to tell us: 'We can take around five hundred cars.... We run two shows a night. When it rains we shut down. Our big business is during the summer. The way we keep from disturbing people is by dividing the space in sections and taking the cars to one section at a time. Yes, we charge more than most of the neighborhood houses, but people seem willing to pay.'"

On June 10, 1938, the San Val opened for business in Burbank, California. Situated on ten acres of land, the drive-in could hold up to six hundred automobiles. Owners also took a stab at correcting the sound problem by hooking up speakers to individual rows of cars. It was an attempt to achieve a more even sound quality throughout the perimeter of the drive-in. The main volume switch, located in the projection booth, was controlled by an attendant who could increase or decrease the volume accordingly when a train passed by.

New York opened its first open-air theater on August 10, 1938. Despite pounding sheets of rain and gusty winds, a crowd of six hundred attended the Valley Stream Drive-in's opening night.

Following the success of these drive-ins and a handful of others, more theaters were soon followed constructed around the country. Although progress would slow considerably due in part to the Great Depression and the war in Europe, by the end of the decade more than fifty open-air theaters would be open for business. Movie-trade insiders, though skeptical about any long term success for drive-in movie theaters, saw the upstarts as major problems for well-established indoor houses. Indeed, "They [drive-ins] are getting more in the way of regularly operated theaters and causing theater men to raise complaints about which seemingly nothing is done."

Instead of joining forces with drive-in owners, indoor theater owners began to battle it out with them over audience share and admission fees, due to the fact that children were admitted for free at many drive-ins. Indoor houses were used to generating healthy profits by virtue of a studio-run monopoly over film distribution. They were not about to change a system that was working so well for them. By refusing to give drive-ins first-run releases, the studios believed that they had sealed their fate and assumed that the drive-in movie theater would be short-lived phenomenon. Nothing could have prepared either side for the explosion that would occur in the next decade.

The drive-in movie theater had made its mark in the 1930s. Despite the Hollywood studios' attempts to disassociate themselves from it, the drive-in's popularity soared in the 1940s as the public's acceptance of this new-found recreation grew to new heights.

Excerpted by permission of Cumberland House Publishing, Inc. Copyright © Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett.

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