89 Years Ago Today, America’s First Drive-in Movie Theater Opened in NJ
If you enjoy movies and the cinematic experience, today is a special day. 89 years ago today, the nation's first real drive-in movie theater opened right here in South Jersey.
And while most people know the first drive-in was located in Camden (not really), there is more to the story.
Technically speaking, that drive-in in Camden (Pennsauken, actually) wasn't the very first one to open.
What was considered a "partial drive-in theater" opened in New Mexico in April 1915. That was a large indoor theater that happened to have places for cars to park around it so people could watch the performance. That theater closed about a year later and it certainly wasn't the typical drive-in theater experience that we all know today.
Not much happened with the concept until 1921 when cars were able to park around an outdoor movie screen to watch silent films in a small town in Texas.
Interested in the idea, about a year later, a man by the name of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., nailed a movie screen to a couple of trees in his yard at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton, NJ, and with a little experimentation, he got things to work pretty well (how far apart cars needed to be spaced, how the sound would match the pictures, etc.).
That movie screen nailed to some trees set off a drive-in movie craze that would sweep the nation in the decades that followed.
In August of 1932, Hollingshead applied for a patent for what he developed, and on June 6, 1933, he opened the first true drive-in movie theater on Admiral Wilson Blvd. in Pennsauken (it's where the Zinman Furs building stands today).
However, it wasn't smooth sailing. Just three years after opening, Hollingshead sold his theater because it failed to turn a profit.
While that theater wasn't a money-maker, people loved the concept and several drive-in theaters opened the following year. By 1950, there were over 4,000 drive-ins across the country.
By the 1970s, drive-ins began to fade into history, however, many either reopened or have survived and are now doing quite well.
While those in South Jersey know the Delsea Drive-in on Delsea Drive in Vineland reopened a number of years ago, there are several other theaters within a short drive from our area.
Shankweiler's Drive-in is located just outside of Allentown, PA (they typically only show family-friendly movies), while Becky's Drive-in is near that area in the small town of Walnutport.
And for a truly amazing retro experience, the Mahoning Drive-in in Lehighton, PA, (near the town of Jim Thorpe in the Poconos) has developed a massive (that's an understatement) cult following that has people driving from all across the country to check out. (Editor's note: the Mahoning doesn't show new movies. In fact, it only shows older movies on 35mm film on its original projector. It is definitely worth the drive if you love drive-in theaters.)
Meanwhile, over the years, South Jersey was home to nearly two dozen drive-ins. Do you remember any of these?