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.
2 of 14 Getty Images

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."

3 of 14 Getty Images

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.
4 of 14 Getty Images

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.
5 of 14 Allan Grant/Getty Images

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.

6 of 14 Getty Images

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.
9 of 14 John Moore/Getty Images

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.
10 of 14 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Summer getaway

Drive-ins still offer a great getaway destination for warm summer nights.
11 of 14 Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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.
12 of 14 Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre

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.
13 of 14 Getty Images

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?

More Galleries

Go Inside the Apple iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro: See How the New iPhones Look and Work
iphone 15 in different color from an angled view

Go Inside the Apple iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro: See How the New iPhones Look and Work

21 Photos
17 Hidden iOS 17 Features and Settings on Your iPhone
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features and Settings on Your iPhone

18 Photos
Astronomy Photographer of the Year Winners Reveal Our Stunning Universe

Astronomy Photographer of the Year Winners Reveal Our Stunning Universe

16 Photos
I Got an Early Look at Intel's Glass Packaging Tech for Faster Chips
Rahul Manepalli, right, Intel's module engineering leader, shows a glass substrate panel before it's sliced into the small rectangles that will be bonded to the undersides of hundreds of test processors. The technology, shown here at Intel's CH8 facility in Chandler, Arizona, stands to improve performance and power consumption of advanced processors arriving later this decade. Glass substrates should permit physically larger processors comprised of several small "chiplets" for AI and data center work, but Intel expects they'll trickle down to PCs, too.

I Got an Early Look at Intel's Glass Packaging Tech for Faster Chips

20 Photos
Check Out the iPhone 15's New Camera in Action
A photo of a silhouette of buildings on the water taken on the iPhone 15

Check Out the iPhone 15's New Camera in Action

12 Photos
Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

16 Photos
CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

9 Photos