Drive-ins are making a comeback

Drive-ins are making a comeback as the COVID-19 era's socially distant entertainment venue. It turns out their origin story has a big chapter here in 1930s Camden, N.J.

Listen 18:19
People and cars gathered at a parking lot turned into a drive-in during the coronavirus pandemic

People’s Light and Theatre turned its rear parking lot into a live entertainment drive-in venue. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Entertainment is taking a page from the old drive-ins of the 1950s and 60s, with more and more events during the COVID-19 era being held in parking lots so concert- and movie-goers can stay socially distant.

While it’s too soon to tell whether the trend is here to stay, WHYY’s arts and culture reporter Peter Crimmins says drive-ins have made a comeback this summer — and traces their origins back to the 1930s in Camden, New Jersey. One historian calls it a “quintessential Camden story.”

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview highlights

On the local origins of drive-ins

Who knows when the first drive-in happened. What I can tell you about the first guy who patented the idea, which was in Camden, New Jersey, 1933, a guy named Richard Hollingshead, who was a manufacturer of chemical products. The story of the first drive-in in Camden is really the story about cars in America generally.

[Hollingshead] ran a chemical company that his father started. His father made products for horse-drawn carriages. He made hoof dressings and leather dressings and things to take care of your carriage and your horse in the in the 19th century. And then cars came along and the whole company switched to making things for your car…

And so then his son comes up, and this is around the time when Admiral Wilson Boulevard is being made in Camden. It was supposed to be the great automobile gateway out of Camden into the rest of New Jersey … So here’s Richard Hollingshead Jr., who’s running a company that makes car products, who’s watching this automobile boulevard being built in his town, and he’s like, “Well, let’s make a drive-in. Let’s do this car thing. Let’s get people in their cars. And they’d never have to leave their cars. They can watch movies in their cars.”

On the popularity of the first drive-in movie in June 1933

It was really, really popular. It was real novel to drive your car into a theater. And apparently Richard Hollingshead built these ramps that you could drive your car up on an incline slightly so that your headlights are actually pointed at the screen, so you would actually be tilted back slightly and you’d have a better sight lines. And it sold out. The first show was called “Wives Beware,” sort of a schlocky 1930s movie, and everyone came.

On whether the drive-in trend will last

Certainly this summer, it’s one of the only ways and it’s a relatively safe way to see live things. And they’re popping up — everyone seems to be showing a drive-in movie somewhere if you have, you know, a parking lot and a blank wall. A lot of stadiums are rigging themselves up, mostly because you can’t see sports either so you’ve got to use your stadium for something, and they have huge parking lots. So it’s happening a lot. Whether or not it will continue, who knows? I guess it depends on the course of the pandemic. And and during this time, people are really starving to get out and do something.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal