80 years and counting: Drive-in cinemas put their stamp on U.S. entertainment (pictures)

Faced with heightened competition from newer, high-tech forms of entertainment, this pre-World War II concept continues to hold onto the American imagination.

Charles Cooper
1 of 14 Peter Stackpole/Getty Images

25 cents, please

Richard Hollingshead opened the first-ever drive-in theater in Camden, N.J., 80 years ago today. Some 600 people turned out that night for the first show, "Wife Beware," which starred Adolphe Menjou. The admission fee? Twenty-five cents for the car and 25 cents for each person in the car (a whopping 10 cents less than the admission fee pictured here). The concept struck a chord as America's car culture took root and spread coast to coast. It wasn't long before the drive-in became a familiar part of the American landscape.
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Accordion speakers

The accordion-like fulcrum arms of movie speakers reached into each driver's front window at Rancho Drive-In Theater. They could be pushed back onto the central post when the movie was over

In 1938, Popular Mechanics wrote that the "problem of sound control had been resolved by the installation of individual loudspeakers for each car in the parking lot.

"The low-volume, bucket-shaped magnetic speakers, numbering 460, are attached to the railing directly in front of the parking rows. They aim the sound at the spectators through the radiators of the cars and can be turned off in any unoccupied sections of the 10-acre enclosure. Formerly three huge dynamic speakers, 22 feet long and 7 feet across the opening were used, but their sound production could not be controlled and they were sometimes heard blocks away. At capacity more than 2,000 motorists can enjoy the movies at this theater. The spectators' cars are placed on a slight incline, so that the backseat patrons may view the picture with ease. The screen is 40 feet by 50 feet, set in a structure 72 feet high and 132 feed wide."

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Sound delays

There were a few more kinks to work out with the early sound systems. If you were unlucky and wound up parked far from the main tower, which housed the equipment, sound delays still were part of the drive-in experience. In 1941, RCA finally solved the problem with the development of in-car speaker systems that came equipped with individual volume controls.
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Drive-in distractions

A couple kissing in the front seat of a convertible car at a drive-in movie theater, circa 1940s. The man in the next car ignores the couple, resting his elbow on the window.
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Service with a smile

With the war ended and returning GIs putting down roots, the suburban population explosion propelled the popularity of drive-ins. By 1958, more than 4,000 drive-ins were in operation in the U.S. and an estimated 35 million Americans patronized drive-in theaters each week.

Here, it's still service with a smile, as a carhop with a flashlight hanging from her neck carries a tray of food and drinks to car occupants at a drive-in movie.

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Disappearing drive-ins

Despite the post-war boom in popularity, drive-ins were living on borrowed time. As cities grew, so did property values. It wasn't long before many of the theaters got razed in favor of housing developments and malls. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, competition from indoor theater multiplexes and home videos helped reduce the number even further.

It's hard to gauge the actual numbers, though it's believed that between 400 and 500 drive-ins remain. (The Drive-in Theater has compiled a state-by-state list.)

In this image, a lone popcorn bucket lays on the ground after a night at the movies at the Fiesta drive-in theater in Carlsbad, N.M.

7 of 14 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Turn it on

Brad Light, the owner of the Fiesta drive-in movie theater in Carlsbad, N.M., pushes the buttons to turn on the movies at the triplex, August 10, 2000.
8 of 14 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Film check

Brad Light, the owner of the Fiesta drive-in movie theater, checks one of the film reels.
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A hidden screen

A movie screen stands overgrown at the Mountain Drive-In in Liberty, N.Y., the heart of the state's famous Catskill region. The drive-in closed after its 1997 season. The area was home to many Borscht Belt hotels that shut down over the years.
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Summer getaway

Drive-ins still offer a great getaway destination for warm summer nights.
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Hail the taxi drive-in

The "Taxi" film premiere, featuring a Taxi Cab Drive-in, is seen at the Jacob Javits Center October 3, 2004 in New York.
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Shankweiler's Drive-In

Drive-ins originally were built on the outskirts of town, where land was inexpensive. Shankweiler's in Orefield, Penn., which has been in continuous operation since 1934, is one of the oldest drive-in movie theaters in America.
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Bengies Drive-In

Two classic cars park at Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Baltimore, one of the few such nostalgic movie theaters in the U.S. Bengies is the biggest theater on the East Coast with a screen measuring 52 feet by 120 feet.
14 of 14 Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Post-war Baby Boom relics

Relics of the post-war Baby Boom era, when car prices dipped within reach of average families, drive-ins found themselves in competition with other forms of consumer entertainment, such as video cassettes, DVDs, multiplex cinemas, and video games. How much longer will they be able to hold on?

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