The drive-in movie industry began slowly as the country struggled through the Great Depression and then focused on the war effort. There were just 95 such theaters scattered across 27 states when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.
Following the war, however, Americans’ changing lifestyles proved ideal for drive-ins as the nation embraced car ownership, the move to the suburbs and the baby boom generation. The number of outdoor theaters swelled to 155 by 1947 and peaked in 1958 with more than 4,000 drive-ins operating nationwide.
Movie executives touted drive-ins as their only hope against the onslaught of television, which had begun to significantly impact attendance at traditional movie theaters. In August 1952, outdoor theaters outdrew indoor ones for the first time. Americans regarded going to the drive-in as a family activity, with pajama-clad children and even the family dog able to attend. Adding appeal, children were admitted free and many drive-in theaters offered playgrounds, miniature golf and other amusements.
With space for 550 cars and a screen that was 70 feet by 44 feet (expanded to 90-feet-wide a few years later), Smith utilized the latest technology and creative marketing. He kept the theater open year-round by installing 400 electric in-car heaters and ran promotions such as costume contests, pet shows, lucky license number prize drawings and dollar-per-carload admission on given weeknights.
By the mid-1960s, the popularity of drive-ins began to fade as Americans became more savvy consumers of entertainment. With the introduction of multiplexes and new indoor cinema technology, audiences grew less willing to wait for a nighttime start with poor picture quality until it was completely dark.
Patrons increasingly accustomed to air-conditioning found the idea of sitting in the car on humid summer nights with open windows and visiting mosquitoes less appealing. Outdoor theaters located in colder climates had a distinct disadvantage compared to the comforts of indoor entertainment.
The 1960s also saw the introduction of cable television into American homes, and the country itself was changing as baby boomers grew up. Arguably the biggest impact on the drive-in was the decline in family-oriented movies. As films became more edgier, parents grew less comfortable bringing children along.
In addition, many drive-ins closed their playgrounds due to liability concerns, making them even less family-friendly. Finally, developers eyed drive-in locations as perfect sites for shopping centers and malls.
These factors led to a steep decline in the number of drive-in theaters. By 1987, less than 1,000 were operating nationwide.
Most of New Jersey’s 40 plus drive-ins closed during the 1970s and 1980s. Although Wilfred Smith retired in 1975, his wife and son kept the Ledgewood Drive-In going until 1986. The Newton Drive-In, which Smith opened in 1957, lasted a few years longer.
When Hazlet’s Route 35 Drive-In shut down in 1991, it appeared that the Garden State, birthplace of the drive-in, had seen its last “auto-torium.” However, the industry has recently seen a renaissance as about 20 drive-ins have opened nationwide during the past few years. Some re-opened after sitting idle for years, and a handful were newly built. Today some 335 drive-ins are operating in the United States.
For lake area residents, there are also closer alternatives. In New York, the Warwick Drive-In, located some 30 miles away, features three screens. There are also active drive-ins in Middletown and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pa.—open continually since 1934—is the country’s oldest operating drive-in theater. It is located about 65 miles from Lake Hopatcong, just outside of Allentown. There are several other drive-ins near Allentown and one north of Scranton.
As we look forward to summer road trips, why not plan on taking in a drive-in movie? After all, as novelist and screenwriter Alice Hoffman wrote in the New York Times in 1988, “when you pay your money and enter the gates of a drive-in theater, you are arriving not just at a space, but a time. You are driving back into summers lost, to barrels of popcorn and root beer with ice... back to the child you once were.”
Let’s all go the movies!
Published: Fourth of July 2019 Vol. 11 No. 3