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Let’s All Go to the Drive-in!

By Marty Kane I December 06, 2019

On June 6, 1933, Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. opened the world’s first drive-in movie theater in Camden, N.J. Officially known as the Automobile Movie Theatre, the marquee in front simply read Drive-In Theatre.

The business was the result of months of work by Hollingshead at his Riverton, N.J. home, where he mounted a projector onto the hood of the family car to show movies on a screen nailed to a tree. After determining how to mount speakers outdoors and experimenting with a lawn sprinkler to simulate rain, a home radio for sound and multiple cars in the yard to work out the logistics of parking and angling, Hollingshead opened his theater to a curious public with the completely unremarkable 1932 film “Wives Beware.”

In a May 17, 1933 interview with the Camden Courier-Post, Hollingshead explained that “here the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be, and parents are furthermore assured of the children’s safety because youngsters remain in the car.”

He added that “the aged and infirm will find the drive-in a boon because they will not be subjected to inconvenience such as getting up to let others pass in narrow aisles or the uncertainty of a seat” and, since moviegoers could smoke, chat and enjoy refreshments without disturbing others, the drive-in theater “virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theater box.”

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.

The local drive-in for the Lake Hopatcong area was located just off the Ledgewood Circle at the juncture of Routes 10 and 46 (then known as Route 6). Opened on April 15, 1950, the theater sat where BJ’s Wholesale Club is located today. It had two entrances: one between what is now McDonald’s and the self-storage facility on Route 46, and another just west of Walgreen’s.

As general manager of Eastern Drive-In Corporation, Wilfred P. Smith was one of the most knowledgeable people in the outdoor theater industry. He had been involved in opening many drive-ins in New Jersey when he decided to build and operate the Garden Auto-Torium on a 35-acre plot in Ledgewood. (Smith later changed the name to the Ledgewood Circle Drive-In and finally simply the Ledgewood Drive-in.)

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.

Drive-in theaters were often used for other purposes during daylight hours, and this was true of the Ledgewood location. Before building its church on Brooklyn-Stanhope Road, the Lutheran Church of Our Savior held summer services at the drive-in. As the spring 1960 Lake Hopatcong Breeze reported, “now people who are ill, crippled or feel sensitive about their old worn clothes or can’t take time out to change, can still worship. All attending may remain in their cars for the services.”

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.

With the re-opening of the Delsea Drive-In in Vineland, New Jersey again has an outdoor movie theater. Originally built in 1949, the Delsea was shuttered for 17 years before returning in 2004.

With double features always showing on its two screens, it combines the nostalgia of yesteryear with modern technology and an extensive concessions menu. Though a 150-mile trip from Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s only drive-in is a worthy destination.

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


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