90 Years Ago, America’s First Drive-in Theater Opened in NJ
Back in the day, you could choose to see a film at any one of dozens and dozens of drive-in movie theaters in New Jersey but now, only one remains.
But the legacy of those theaters has not been forgotten, however, you probably drive past places where hundreds of people once visited to see movies in their cars and not even know it.
The history of drive-in theaters in the Garden State -- and the nation -- started in 1933 when America's first drive-in opened in Pennsauken.
As the story goes, after experimenting with showing movies outside by setting up a projector in his driveway, on June 6, 1933, Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., opened a drive-in theater on Admiral Wilson Boulevard (the Zinman Furs building and Rosemont Avenue sit there today).
His theater had room for some 400 cars and featured a 40x50-foot screen.
Showing the movie was the easy part. Hearing it was a different story.
An efficient way to deliver sound in this setting had yet to be invented, so to hear what you were seeing, you had to roll your car windows down and listen to giant speakers that were next to the screen (yes, there was an echo). Not only could you hear the movie, but so could everyone who lived around the theater.
It would be another seven years before in-car speakers were introduced.
After three years and not making much money on the venture, Hollingshead sold his theater to another theater company that took the concept and ran with it.
From there, drive-ins began to rapidly open in the late-1940s and into the 50s. They were everywhere in practically every county.
As time moved into the 70s, drive-ins started to suffer. Many closed. Some struggled to make it into the 80s.
At least one in New Jersey showed X-rated movies to try to bring in money (can you imagine seeing porn on a drive-in movie screen?!).
- FACT: Shankweiler's, the second-oldest drive-in in the nation, remains open to this day near Allentown, PA.
One of the features of a drive-in was the fact that hundreds of cars (in some cases, well over a thousand) could park and see a movie. To do that, you needed a lot of land that has been totally cleared. Those wide-open spaces became very attractive to developers -- especially in New Jersey -- and in a money crunch, many theaters sold.
As someone who loves drive-ins, I recently took to the internet to see where some theaters were in New Jersey and what's there now. Seeing how big of a project that was becoming, I focused my efforts on areas of the state that were below Interstate 195.
And after you take a look at the pictures below, you'll want to pay a visit to cinematreasures.org, which is a tremendous resource to explore the history of drive-ins, complete with vintage pictures and comments from fans.