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The Rise, The Fall And The New Rise Of Drive-In Movie Theaters


The pandemic has made outdoor movies popular again. Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up. Actor Michael B. Jordan and Amazon Studios are running a drive-in movie series in 20 cities this summer. And next month, 160 Walmart parking lots will become temporary drive-in movie theaters. Both companies provide funding support to NPR.


But this resurgence raises the question, why parking lots? At one time, this country had more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters. Where did they all go? And where did the idea come from anyway?

SHAPIRO: Well, we found the answer to that second question about where they came from in the NPR archives. In 1981, we brought you the story of what Richard Hollingshead of Camden, N.J., did in the early 1930s or, more precisely, what his mother asked him to do.


NANCY HOLLINGSHEAD: Donna; we used to call her Donna.

CHANG: That's the late Nancy Hollingshead. She died about 15 years ago at age 98. She was Richard's sister-in-law, and she remembers her mother-in-law quite well.


HOLLINGSHEAD: She was a big woman, and she said she didn't like to go to the movies because the seats were so tight. And I remember her saying, Dick, why don't you think of something where people could drive in?

SHAPIRO: So with his mother in mind, Richard Hollingshead mounted a Kodak movie projector on top of his car and nailed sheets up between trees to make a screen.

CHANG: Hollingshead patented his concept and, in June of 1933, opened the automobile movie theater in Camden. And it permitted as many people who could pack into a car to gain admission.


HOLLINGSHEAD: It'd be a dollar for a car. Or if just two people were driving, I think it was 25 cents each.

SHAPIRO: Nancy Hollingshead told us it wasn't just appealing because it was cheap. Drive-in movies also felt more casual than the traditional theater experience.


HOLLINGSHEAD: You didn't have to get dressed up. You could go in your car as you were and then drive out and be home. And if you didn't like the movie, you could drive out. There wasn't that much of a loss.

CHANG: So that's where the idea came from. But as far as what happened to the thousands of drive-ins - well, they eventually disappeared for lots of reasons. Some you can guess, you know, like TV and then VHS.

SHAPIRO: But the real villain was real estate. All that land that sat idle during the day just became too valuable. And one by one, drive-in movie theaters were sold.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Nine minutes to go to showtime. We're delighted to have you with us, and we extend a cordial welcome to you. We've lined up the top stars from Hollywood and from all over the world to entertain you on our giant screen...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.