Cruising to the Drive-In


A nostalgic way to watch movies has been making a comeback in recent months. Drive-in movie theaters are popping up across the nation. Learning from Miami invites you to cruise down memory lane while we take a trip through the history of the drive-in movie.

Auto-parts sales manager and cinephile Richard Hollingshead created the drive-in theater in the early 1930s by using his own driveway in Camden, New Jersey, to test out his new cinematic concept. Hollingshead experimented with various projection techniques including mounting a projector to the hood of his car and devised the perfect orientation and spacing so that all the cars were able to view the screen. He even used his home sprinkler system to test out how rain would affect the operation of his outdoor theater.

On June 6th, 1933, with an investment of $30,000, Richard Hollingshead opened his first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey. The price of admission was a bargain at 25 cents for the car and 25 cents per person. One of the main issues with drive-ins was the inferior sound quality. Hollingshead teamed up with RCA Victor to develop a sound system, called “directional sound” where three main speakers were mounted next to the screen.

Drive-ins became an icon of American culture. They reached their peak popularity between the late 1950s to mid-1960s with 5,000 theaters that opened across America. Inside their vehicles, audiences had privacy and a viewing experience that was like watching a movie at home as opposed to the restrictions of going to a movie palace. Movies weren’t the only thing happening at drive-ins. Patrons could leave their cars, hang out, and meet new people.  Drive-ins also offered a variety of activities such as dances, contests, restaurants, fireworks, and even religious services.


Drive-ins also appealed to viewers of different classes and races. Individuals who were not welcomed at indoor movie theaters – minorities, disabled individuals, and families with small children – were able to enjoy the movie-going experience in a safe environment without prejudices.

During the late 1960s, drive-in attendance was on the decline. Competing against the more profitable indoor movie theaters that could show a movie several times a day and sell more tickets, drive-ins with their limited daily screening schedule became known for showing B-movies and exploitation films. Real estate interest rate hikes during the late 1970s and early 1980s made the large areas of land used by drive-ins increasingly valuable and expensive to purchase. Another blow to the drive-in theater industry were advancements in home entertainment technology. Upgrades like color televisions, home video players, video rentals and cable television services made it more convenient for audiences to watch movies at home. Today, there are just a few hundred drive-ins left. Surviving the demise of other drive-ins in South Florida, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop’s Thunderbird Drive-in continues its nightly offerings of first-run movies, just as it has since 1963.

With social distancing becoming our new way of life, there has been a resurgence of the drive-in theater concept. Several popup drive-ins have been opening across South Florida, keeping moviegoers safe while providing some much-needed entertainment. Miami Beach recently opened a residents-only drive-in at Collins Avenue and 46th Street. Miami’s popular Nite Owl Theater has plans to open a makeshift drive-in. The Miami Dolphins recently announced that they will be turning the Hard Rock Stadium into a temporary drive-in movie theater, with a capacity of over 200 cars per showing. Dezerland, an indoor amusement park in North Miami, has also opened a drive-in theater in its parking lot, showing movies on weekend nights.  Is this new movie trend here to stay? Only time will tell.

-Ursa Gil



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