American drive-in movie theaters experienced their golden era during the 1950s, but some Floridians were watching movies under the stars in their cars even before then: The city of Miami gets its first drive-in on this day in 1938. The Miami drive-in charged admission of 35 cents per person, which was more than the average ticket price at an indoor theater, and soon had to trim the price to 25 cents per person.
America’s first-ever drive-in opened near Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933, and was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, whose family owned an auto parts company. The inaugural feature was a 1932 film called “Wives Beware,” and admission was 25 cents per car and an additional 25 cents per person. The sound for the movies was provided by three large RCA speakers next to the main screen. (The quality of the drive-in experience improved during the 1940s with the advent of the in-car speaker.)
Following World War II, the popularity of drive-in theaters increased as America’s car culture grew. By the early 1950s, there were more than 800 drive-ins across the United States. Although they earned a reputation as “passion pits” for young couples seeking privacy, most drive-in customers were families (parents didn’t have to hire babysitters or get dressed up and their children could wear pajamas and sleep in the car) and often featured playgrounds, concession stands and other attractions. Some drive-ins were super-sized, including Detroit’s Bel Air Drive-In, built in 1950, which had room for more than 2,000 cars, and Baltimore’s Bengies Drive-In, which opened in 1956, and claimed the biggest movie screen in the U.S.: 52 feet high by 100 feet wide. Over the years, attempts were made to develop a daytime screen that would enable drive-ins to show movies before it got dark, but nothing proved successful.
At their peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were some 4,000 drive-ins across America. However, during the 1970s and 1980s the drive-in industry went into decline and theaters shut down, due to such factors as rising real-estate values (which made selling the land for redevelopment more profitable than continuing to operate it as a drive-in) and the rise of other entertainment options, including video recorders, multiplex theaters and cable television. By 1990, there were around 1,000 U.S. drive-ins. Today, they number less than 400 (states with the most remaining drive-ins include Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York).
New Jersey has the distinction of being the home of not just the first drive-in but also the first fly-in theater. In June 1948, Ed Brown’s Drive-In and Fly-In opened in Wall Township and had space for 500 cars and 25 planes.