What is: the Drive In movie sound system

What was: The concept for the first drive-in movie business originated with one man in the late 1920s. Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. came up with the concept of watching movies from one’s car. He was looking for an alternative for his mother who was very uncomfortable in movie theaters. Hollingshead thought sitting in a car might be better for her and for others.

The best place to experiment with this possible plan was in his own driveway.  Taking a white bed sheet, he tacked it up between two trees in his backyard. He parked his car facing the sheet.  Next, he placed a projector on the hood of the car. He was delighted to see that once it became dark, it was relatively easy to watch a movie against the bed sheet.

Sound was the next issue he needed to address. If everyone was sitting in separate cars, how could music and dialog reach them?  For an answer, Hollingshead contacted the RCA Victor Company and described his concept for an outdoor theater. The fellow assured him that three good-sized speakers placed around a lot where cars were parked could provide adequate sound.  (When drive-in theaters first opened, they all relied on big speakers well placed around the drive-in lot.)

To make money, Hollingshead’s needed his business to accommodate many cars. He envisioned rows of cars with an elevated screen so cars parked further back would still be able to see the screen. That meant for more comfortable viewing, the cars needed to tilt back ever so slightly. To accomplish that, he planned on short, low ramps to elevate the front of the car slightly.  That way passengers leaned back a bit to look up toward the raised screen.

Hollingshead received a patent for his plan on May 16, 1933. By this time, he had enlisted a couple of investors and found a 400-acre lot in Camden, New Jersey. He named the company Park-In Theatres.  The next step was ordering a custom-built 40 by 50-foot screen.

By 1941, RCA introduced a new speaker system for use in outdoor theaters. The ground needed to be wired so that posts with two speakers could be installed between cars. Drivers would pull up into the parking places between the poles. The speakers could be removed from the pole and hung over the windows of the car. That way each family had a speaker and could control their own volume for the film.  These initial speakers were a bit tinny in sound, but the sound quality improved over time.

Today speaker set and pole can be purchased online for about 350.00

What is: The Fork Union Drive In Theatre,  Route 612, Fork Union, VA,

What was: Frayser Francis “F.F.” White II opened the Fork Union Drive-In in 1953.  It was closed in 2013. This single screen drive-in has a capacity for 180 cars, making it Virginia’s smallest. This Drive In has traditional pole speakers and it was a classic drive-in located in a grass field.  (Source:

There are currently about 330 drive-in theaters that remain in operation in the United States compared to a peak of about 4,000 in the late 1950’s. In the 1980s there were fewer than 200 Drive-Ins operating in Canada and the United States.

Drive-in theatres were especially popular with the post WWII and baby boomer generation, especially in rural areas. Drive in theatres were affordable and attractive to families (older adults could see a movie while taking their children in the car with them. Some drive-ins even offered diaper vending machines). Eventually many Drive-Ins added mini golf and play areas for the children to further expand the family friendly night of entertainment. Drive-Ins were also an affordable date night.  By the 1950s those affordable date nights, combined with the privacy of the car, gave Drive-ins a new reputation — as passion pits.

For the owners of the Drive-Ins, the cost of building and maintaining a drive-in theater was cheaper than that of an in-door theater. The decline for Drive-Ins is often viewed through the lens of the emergence of color TV, cable TV and the advent of VCRs. Other factors include the 1970s gas crisis, inflation and increased real estate values, making the land less affordable for this kind of business.