What old drive-in movie theaters were like in the 1950s & 60s – and why they were so popular

Old drive-in movie theaters

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Mid-century glory days of drive-in movie theaters

The first purpose-built drive-in theater opened back in 1933 in Pennsauken, New Jersey. The format was marketed as being entertainment for all, with some ads noting, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

The late 1950s and the early 1960s, though, were the real drive-in glory days, when there were about 4,000 such venues spread across the country — about a quarter of the total number of movie theatres. No doubt much of the popularity was thanks to the teen set, who flocked to drive-ins on date night.

While the article below speculated that only World War 3 would bring an end to Americans’ love of big-screen in-car entertainment, traditional indoor theaters accounted for the vast majority of all screens in the US. In fact, as of 2022, there were apparently just 321 drive-ins left in the country.

Photo by John Margolies/LOC
Photo by John Margolies/LOC
The trend in Drive-In Theaters: A look back from 1950

By Charles R. Underbill, Jr. RCA Victor Division, Camden, NJ in the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950)

THE FIRST DRIVE-IN THEATER was built near Camden, N.J., in 1933. By the end of World War II, there were only about 60 drive-in theaters, indicating that the idea had caught on slowly during those eight years before the war.

It was not until after the war that the wave of open-air-see-the-movies-from-your-automobile enterprises really got underway.

During the four years since VJ Day, over 1000 have been constructed, and many more are being planned or are under construction.

As soon as unrationed gasoline again became available, the public took to the highways for the wide-open spaces. The drive-ins were doing capacity business.

Prospective theater owners could not build indoor theaters at first because of government restrictions on building materials. Then followed prohibitive construction costs.

Vintage drive-in movie theater intermission reel clip (2)

Man putting in vintage drive-in movie speakers - 1950

It was quickly realized that drive-in theaters could be constructed of readily available materials and equipment. It was also determined that they could be built at a cost of approximately 20% of the postwar costs involved in building an indoor theater of an equivalent patron capacity, based on an average drive-in audience of approximately three persons per car.

Simultaneously, postwar projection and sound equipments were announced which had been designed and built expressly for drive-in theater use. It made obsolete most of the equipment used in drive-in theaters before the war, especially the sound equipment.

The largest single factor in contributing to public acceptance of drive-in theaters is the in-car speaker, introduced by RCA in 1941 just prior to our entry into World War II. Experience gained previous to the war pointed the way to successful drive-in theater construction, equipment, and management.

Paramus Drive In Theatre - New Jersey's most beautiful
Paramus Drive In Theatre – New Jersey’s most beautiful

The in-car speaker removed most of the restrictions on locations where the use of centralized speaker systems at the screen would have classed them as public nuisances. For the first time, a theater patron had complete control over the sound.

To the amazement of even the drive-in theater owners, in came a type of patronage rarely seen at indoor theaters; the physically handicapped, invalids, convalescents, the aged, deaf people, expectant mothers, parents with infants and small children whole families, dressed as they pleased in the privacy and comfort of their own domain on wheels.

They are continuing to come in increasing numbers from rural, suburban, and city areas a new clientele representing a long-neglected but highly important segment of some 30,000,000 people of the “Forgotten Audience,” who, according to the claims of some producers, had not been attending indoor movie theaters.

These are the backbone of drive-in theater patronage, and everything is being done to retain their acceptance of the drive-in theater.

Old-fashioned drive in movies from 1953 (1)

Drive-in theater patrons can do as they please within the dictates of decency in the privacy of their automobiles. They can shell and eat roasted peanuts, smoke, hold a normal conversation, regulate ventilation, and relax in wider and more comfortable seats with more legroom than possible in an indoor theater.

There is no parking problem or standing in line for admission. Parents are relieved of the worries and expense associated with employing suitable baby sitters, or of the conduct of their children if left at home. Obviously no drive-in theater can afford a reputation for being lax in enforcing good conduct.

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Employees like working in drive-in theaters. There is a bit of carnival or county fair atmosphere which adds to the spirit of showmanship. Even the projectionist finds a difference — instead of looking down toward the screen, he looks up, as do the theater patrons.

Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 -- West Riverside, Calif.
Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 — West Riverside, Calif.

Vintage drive-in movie theater intermission reel clip (6)

Vintage drive-in movie theater intermission reel clip (1)

Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 — West Riverside, Calif.
Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 -- West Riverside, Calif.
Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 — West Riverside, Calif.
Special services and features of old drive-in theaters

Taking their cues from the gasoline filling stations of the leading oil companies, aggressive drive-in theater exhibitors render those extra services and courtesies which experience has proven gain public favor: windshield wiping, car towing, tire changing, a free gallon of gas for dry tanks.

Many other services have been made available to the public which are customarily not found in most indoor theaters. There are diaper and other vending machines carrying personal items, free bottle warmers for baby formulas, a nurse in attendance, call service for doctors or others subject to emergency service calls.

Thus, the drive-in theater has long since passed from the novelty category into the realm of big show business. As the number of drive-in theaters has increased, picture availability has improved, bringing in the regular movie-going public by the car-full.

Retro drive-in theater car speakers from 1954 (2)

Returns on capital investment are an investor’s dream and have been so startling as to attract new capital from sources far remote from the theater business. The maintenance costs of drive-in theaters have been estimated to run as low as 20% of those for an indoor theater.

The concession business of the drive-in theater is the envy of almost any roadside stand, and is estimated to account for about 25% of the gross income.

Each year, rapid strides are manifest in drive-in theaters. There is now available a highly scientific modern toll system, a modification of collection systems used at the largest bridges and tunnels, which is a substantially foolproof method of collecting and recording toll receipts, at the same time eliminating the use of tickets.

There are airplane drive-ins and canoe drive-in theaters. Glamour prevails in many drive-in theaters, featuring lighted waterfalls over the rear of the screen tower, beautiful landscaping, and ultra-modern concession stands with exclusive names such as “Snack-N-Vue Bar” and “Din- A-Peek Restaurant.”

Reda Drive-Inn Theatre, Middlesboro, Kentucky
Reda Drive-Inn Theatre, Middlesboro, Kentucky

In fact, everything is being put into drive-in theaters which experience indicates the public likes with their outdoor moving picture entertainment.

A free rein has been given to the imagination in the architects’ plans, each new plan vying with those of competitors for increased public acceptance of drive-in theater environment, offering an economical and versatile means of recreation, relaxation, and general personal enjoyment for each and every patron.

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Vintage drive-in movie theater intermission reel clip (4)

Photo by John Margolies/LOC
Photo by John Margolies/LOC
About drive-in movie theater speakers

Figure 3 is a ramp station comprising two speakers and a junction box. The speaker housings are of die-cast aluminum, rugged enough to withstand being run over by an automobile without crushing. They are small in size and light in weight and are easily handled with one hand.

The hook or neck construction was designed so the speaker can be hung on the car window, with the window almost closed, as would be necessary in rainy or cold weather. The volume control knob is of bright red plastic and is tamper-proof.

Old aluminum drive-in theater speakers from 1950

The future demand for more drive-in movies

… There is every indication that the public needs and wants more drive-in theaters, if strategically located, wisely constructed, and properly equipped.

The trend is toward drive-in theaters having smaller car capacities which can adequately serve rural or suburban communities. Many have already outgrown their car capacities. The solution has been simple and economical in those theaters owning sufficient land. It has been necessary only to add and equip one or more ramps.

San Pedro Drive-In Theater California

Indications are that an undetermined number of well-established drive-in theaters which have been in operation for several years have made plans for improvements and for replacing their old equipment.

All of these activities are conclusive proof that the drive-in theater business is here to stay. Exhibitors were literally pushed into it as an aftermath of World War II. In the opinion of the author, only a World War III can be its nemesis.

The old Airline Drive-in Theatre sign and back of screen (Dallas, Texas)
The old Airline Drive-in Theatre sign and back of screen (Dallas, Texas)
Photo by John Margolies/LOC

Drive-in movie theater ticket stub from Salem Ohio Public Library

Morris Plains Drive-In Theatre – New Jersey (1950s-1960s)

Morris Plains Drive-In Theatre - New Jersey (1950s-1960s)

Blue Dell Drive-In in Irwin, PA (1940s/1950s)
Blue Dell Drive-In Theatre
Blue Dell Drive-In Theatre

A variety of vintage drive-in theater window speakers

Vintage drive-in movie speakers from 1951 (1)

Vintage drive-in movie speakers from 1951 (2)

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Two old chrome drive-in speakers
Old chrome drive-in-theater-speakers
Photo by Dennis Jeffrey

How people used old drive-in movie speakers by hanging them in the car window
How people used old drive-in movie speakers by hanging them in the car window

Impac by RCA: Speakers for old drive-in movie theaters
Huge retro RCA movie speakers from 1957

Old drive-in movie theater speaker set

From a museum collection/car show, in front of a gorgeous orange & white 1956 Mercury

Photo by Chris

Movie speaker in the car window

Retro drive-in theater car speakers from 1954 (1)

Old-fashioned drive in movies from 1953 (2)

Vintage drive-in movie theater intermission reel clip (5)

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Comments on this story

8 Responses

  1. So back in 1965 my grandparents accidentally drove off with one of these speakers. The cord is still attached and what would be my best bet to find out what it’s worth?

    1. “accidentally drove off with one” and you’re asking what it’s WORTH?? Why not return it to it’s rightful owner instead of asking how much you think you can get for it??

      1. After nearly 60 years, it’s doubtful the “rightful owner” is still around… :D

        On a somewhat related note, a local historical society held a contest to identify old artifacts that aren’t in use anymore. One artifact that apparently stumped everyone was an in-car speaker from a drive-in movie theater.

  2. I accidently drove off with one of those in my nice new 1960 Rambler and was picking the broken window glass out of the mat for a week. I never got the speaker.

    They cut the cord because they thought they could use the speaker elsewhere. Idiots!

    1. Wait, if you drove off with it, then what cord did “they” cut? How did you not get the speaker? Did you turn it in? I must be missing something …
      Dave Lounder

  3. When I was growing up in the 70s, drive-ins were still around but had gone to seed for the most part. The few drive-ins that survived showed second-run movies or low-budget, R-rated and even X-rated fare. There was one drive-in near a shopping center we used to visit, and the screen was positioned so that people in the shopping center parking lot could get a full view. I can remember getting quite the eyeful of movies that, shall we say, kids like me weren’t supposed to be seeing. Neither the drive-in theater nor the shopping center are around today.

  4. Unless it is a clone the Airline drive in was located in Houston. Most drive ins were located on prime reale state. Suddenly you could sell the land and make more money than if you ran the theater another 20 years. I owned and operated indoor and drive in theaters for 59 years.

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