Saturday, November 28, 2009

Westbury Drive In 1953-1998

June 6, 2008,
The Drive-In Movie Turns 75

On this day 75 years ago, the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, N.J., showing a British comedy titled, “Wives Beware,” for 25 cents a car and 25 cents per person.

As the story goes, its inventor, Richard Hollingshead Jr., conducted experiments at his home in Riverton, N.J., by placing a Kodak film projector on the roof of his car and directing it at a white bedsheet hung between two trees in his yard. Some people have suggested that he invented the drive-in for his mother, who was a large woman and did not fit comfortably in regular indoor theater seats.

On May 16, 1933, Mr. Hollingshead patented a special parking arrangement, where every car would have an unobstructed view of the screen. He opened the Camden theater a month later. His partner was his first cousin, Willis W. Smith. Before 1933, neither had any experience in the theater business.

Drive-ins have always been known for showing older movies or just plain bad ones. Because of the high cost and heavy competition in purchasing top-tier movies, drive-ins have always resorted to second-runs and B-movies (and even X-rated movies). “Wives Beware” was chosen by the drive-in founders because it was not sought after by the established theater owners and still relatively recent.

“Like most innovations, that first drive-in theatre got off to a good start, financially, if not artistically,” wrote Thomas M. Pryor in The Times on August 14, 1938. “Competition in the picture-buying market was keen, though. Too keen, in fact, for the sponsors of the drive-in theatre, and after a series of poor pictures even the novelty of the scheme seemed to lose its box office appeal.”

In 1934, Mr. Hollingshead and Mr. Smith headed west to Hollywood, where they struck a deal with “a substantial independent exhibitor,” wrote Mr. Pryor. They also converted a parking lot on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles into a drive-in, which became an immediate success. And the rest is history.

By 1938, there were 12 theaters across the country. The first one in New York State opened in Valley Stream, Long Island, on Wednesday, August 10, 1938. There was a downpour. But according to Mr. Pryor’s story, the rain didn’t hamper the viewing for the 1,500 people who attended the premiere (in 600 cars). Admission was 35 cents a person.

“Drive-ins started to really take off in the ‘50s,” Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told Smithonian magazine. “They offered family entertainment. People could sit in their cars, they could bring their babies, they could smoke. Drive-ins offered more flexibility than indoor theaters.”

But since the 1960s, the number of drive-in theaters across the country have steadily declined. Today there are none in the New York metropolitan area. The last one, Westbury Drive-In, closed in 1998.

Richard S. Chang

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