It wasn’t that long ago when a family’s summer road trip included a night out at a nearby drive-in theater. About an hour before sunset, Mom would call the kids from the motel’s playground and tell them that Dad had a special treat — he was taking the family to see a double-feature! With that, they’d all pile in the car and cruise on over to the drive-in. Later, with everyone holding popcorn and soda, Dad adjusted the speakers, and the family settled in to watch the adventures that waited on the giant screen, making it all feel so much larger than life. 

Grab some popcorn and let’s go!
Photo: Stephanie Stuckey

So, why are we reminiscing about drive-ins? Well, recently, while waxing nostalgic about family road trips, we thought about Dad and Mom, which led us to remember that it will soon be Mother’s Day. And thinking about road trips and Mom led us to remember a story about why the drive-in movies were invented in the first place. Read on to find out as we take a quick look at how a son’s love for his mother led to your road-trip nights at the drive-in movies.

Fun for the Whole Family

If you wanted to find 34-year-old Richard Hollingshead in 1933, you could usually see him tinkering around in his Camden, NJ, driveway with his car and movie projector. Was he practicing to become a movie director? Actually, it was quite the opposite. Richard wasn’t making movies; rather he was playing them, or at least trying to figure out a way to play them so people could watch from the comfort of their automobile.

You see, Richard loved his mother, and his mother loved the movies. However, Mrs. Hollingshead wasn’t a petite woman and had a hard time fitting in the theater seats. And oh, how she missed seeing the moving pictures. Richard just wanted to see his mom happy, and as a result, there he was out in the driveway, tying a couple of sheets between two trees and experimenting with projection and sound techniques by mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and placing a radio behind the sheets for sound. He even experimented with ramps and spacing so each car would have the best view of the screen.

Newspaper ad for the world’s first drive-in.

In May 1933, Richard finally patented his idea and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. — the first drive-in in the world — less than a month later on June 6. Advertising it as fun for the whole family, Hollingshead welcomed everyone, “regardless of how noisy the children are.” He charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person with no group paying over a dollar to see the 1932 British comedy film Two White Arms (also known as Wives Beware), directed by Fred Niblo and starring Adolphe Menjou, Margaret Bannerman and Claud Allister. 

Glory Days and Gimmicks

People really liked this new idea of watching movies from the comfort of their cars. However, it wouldn’t be until after World War II when drive-ins really began popping up everywhere across America. This was due mostly to two things: Hollingshead losing his drive-in patent in 1949, and America’s post-war love affair with car culture.

Drive-ins reached their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with over 4,151 theaters in operation nationwide at the time. Their appeal was multifaceted. They were cheaper than indoor theaters. Dads saved gas by not having to drive to the big city because they were usually built in the rural parts of the country. Moms liked them because she could bring the children — usually clad in their pajamas — without worrying about them making noise and bothering other moviegoers. Young men and women found them to be the perfect place for a first date. As a result, drive-ins became an iconic part of American culture.

However, like their indoor counterparts, drive-ins were not above using gimmicks to bring in a bigger audience. Some of these gimmicks included free admission and “buck nights” where each car only cost a dollar to get in. Others went a step further, offering playgrounds and petting zoos for the kids and personal appearances by actors appearing in the films. There were also double features — the buy-one-get-one-free of drive-ins — along with dusk-to-dawn nights where they played feature-length films from sundown to sun-up. Some drive-ins even had motels on their premises, where guests could watch movies from the comfort of their rooms.

Many drive-ins featured playgrounds for kids (and kids at heart) like this Ferris wheel at the Big Mo Drive-in located in Monetta, South Carolina.
Photo: Stephanie Stuckey

Drive-Ins Driven Out

By the beginning of the 1970s, however, drive-in attendance was on the decline, a result of many factors. First, the 1970s energy crisis resulted in the lower automobile use. Second, the rise in newer home entertainment such as color television, cable TV, VCRs and video rental, meant that families no longer had to leave their house to be entertained.

Another factor in the decline of drive-in attendance was the shift in families moving from Main Street America to mall culture. Malls were more convenient, not affected by weather, and provided a more “all-inclusive” form of entertainment for families to spend a night out. As a result, drive-ins found it increasingly difficult to make a profit. In fact, as drive-ins lost their appeal, many owners found it more economically viable to simply sell the land the drive-ins were located on … and many actually sold their properties to build more malls with multi-cinema theaters located inside.

An abandoned drive-in somewhere in Nevada.
Photo courtesy SofieLayla Thal from Pixabay

By 2000, there were only 442 drive-ins still in operation in America. By 2018 that number had fallen to 321, where it remains today. States like Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, and Louisiana no longer have any drive-ins in business, and many critics all but declared that drive-ins would be gone forever by 2030.

Driven Back to the Drive-In

Those who are nostalgic for drive-ins may not lose all hope, however, as a worldwide crisis just might have saved the drive-in — at least for a little while. It seems that, with social-distancing protocols temporarily closing indoor theaters all across the country, drive-ins have started to make somewhat of a comeback. In the summer of 2020, the drive-in theater became the summer go-to for movie-starved audiences around the U.S. Along with drive-ins reopening, empty malls put their even emptier parking lots to good use by becoming ad-hoc drive-in theaters, complete with makeshift screens and audio available on FM radio. Wal-Mart even got into the act with 150 of their stores hosting drive-in movie nights.

Drive-ins became the summer go-to destinations for movie-goers in 2020.
Michele Hassinger
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And drive-ins have also made use of themselves in other ways. For instance, a drive-in theater in Texas held a socially-distanced wedding that was live-streamed onto both of theaters screens. Other drive-ins are hosting concerts and stand-up comedy shows that can be watched from the comfort of air-conditioned (or heated, as the case may be) automobiles.

One thing’s for sure, whether the drive-in’s comeback lasts another two years or another century, it will always be a part of iconic roadside America culture.

And don’t forget, whether it’s a local drive-in or an impromptu outdoor movie theater shown on the side of the local mall, make sure you stop by the nearest Stuckey’s location before you go. From our delicious flavored pecans and world-famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls to our mouthwatering popcorn in a variety of flavors, Stuckey’s has all the drive-in movie theater snacks and road trip treats  you’ll need on your night out.

Oh and one more thing — Mother’s Day is May 9 this year! Thank your mama for all of those times she took you to the drive in and get her the “Mama’s Day Gift Box” from Stuckey’s- one of the best Mother’s Day gifts ever because it’s full of all the Stuckey’s goodness she loves! Find out more at stuckeys.com.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!