It was just about summer and it felt it. Temperatures had been in the 90’s with the air still holding warm and muggy into the evening hours. All day Jersey Bombers had been waiting patiently ready to unfold their wings and go hunting mortals. They weren’t the only ones sweating it out. The success of this new enterprise would be a turning point for a man waist deep in his thirties with a hopeful answer to an uncertain future.
How and why the drive in theatre came into being so early is often seen as a feat unto itself. And yet if we look at the catalyst which brought it to life, it seems the timing was perfect.
The life of the man accredit with the invention of the drive in theatre calendared those forces which launched it and ultimately led to its decline.
His birth in the year of 1900 coincided with a great blaze that razed the Hollingshead family’s factory, and soon a conversion of a business catering to horse harnesses over to automotive. A twist of fate and a wise choice, for the following years were heady times as automobiles became no longer a luxury but a necessity. Quickly America embraced the idea of personal mobility, and as other forms of transportation started to wane or flounder, a vast support structure of roads, bridges, traffic laws, gas stations, food services, and of course care products for cars exploded.
Located in Camden NJ, the Whiz Automotive Products plant grew along with the fortunes of the Hollingshead family.
By the time he was 18 years old WW1 had come and gone, young Richard found himself working at the now thriving family business, and Camden had a local war hero in Mr. Admiral Wilson. The boulevard named in the Admirals honor would later hold the first Drive In Theater.
Times probably couldn’t have seemed better to a young prosperous person as he rose up the ladder. The 1920’s had seen cars grow in comfort and reliability, the seeds of suburbia sprouting, and movies becoming a major force in entertainment. Already by 1925 members of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America had held meetings on developing outdoor theatres involving cars. However at that time it was concluded that no one would sit in an auto to see a movie. Indoor exhibitors remained in lock step with the film distributors. New and exciting shows would remain inside controlled profitable conditions.
Sitting outside in the open air with the elements would be left to left to those traveling novelties who displayed surplus product.
Those entrepreneurs’ techniques consisted of a budget minded projector mounted to a vehicle, a makeshift screen, and sprocket worn films shown to audiences sitting on benches, bleachers, or blankets. Dramatic plots unfolded as outdated Agriculture Dept. films played out as a main feature.
Mr. Hollingshead Jr has been considered a film buff, however it’s likely that his viewings occurred in the more upscale venues and those venerable outdoor expositions probably had little influence his later inventiveness.
I suspect deeper and more primal reasons for his inspiration.
Sitting in his car on stallway six Mr Hollingshead thought back on what a whirlwind it had been. A proud man from a proud family finding himself temporarily out of work, but he could make it, strike out on his own. Just a few years ago he was tending to the family’s fortune as a plant manager in an ever expanding company. Today a far cry from those booming days when he went into Canada to organize a subsidiary plant there. Those lessons had served him well. You do not sit around and wait for lady luck to come knocking, if it’s going to happen, you best be making it happen.
At age 29 the stock market crashed around him and with sure speed by the time he was in his thirties his company and the nation was in a depression. The banks had temporarily taken over the family business and he had found himself without employment at age 32. Like many others from his generation this led to a great aversion of debt.
Mr. Hollingshead’s Grandfather created a mercantile from scratch; his own father formed Whiz Auto Products dating back to making soap in a kitchen sink. Now it was time for him to grab those bootstraps and get to it himself.
It is said his version of the four basic needs were food, clothing, cars, and movies.
His first notion was a unique type of gas station. This station would start out with a Hawaiian theme to draw customers to its doors. Items from the line of Whiz Products could be promoted there, and full repair services could be offered. A restaurant service would be available; patrons could eat while waiting for their cars. Movies could also be shown to pass the time. Almost as an afterthought.
That is where a great jump happens, and the events that led to a focus on movies, and specifically movies shown while sitting in the automobile are sketchy. I have read a spattering of explanations from deductive reasoning eliminating the service station aspect, to his own mother being a larger framed person and not being able to enjoy indoor cinemas, to other points that almost sound more like after the fact ad copy.
Yet whatever the case, roughly between the years 1932 and 1933 he did decide on a plan action. He experimented and worked out the details, built a model of the project, patented the idea, obtained financing with other principles to enable construction, found a location, built the large facility, and made the reality of opening day. This being true, it seems unlikely that any man of lesser means would have been able to accomplish all this.
Time, Place, Chance, Matter
Richards Hollingsheads Home
The humble beginnings of the drive begin with him at his home, projector on car, screen on tree, and movie playing while he thought. This experiment must have been part of a larger plan because it was said that he tested viewing in simulated weather conditions and was pleased with the results. A radio placed behind the screen to simulate soundtrack, one must assume since the old Kodak projector had no sound head, produced decent results at that short distance. Most importantly, to simulate an audience of cars, various angles were tried for best viewing.
Immediately lawyer Leonard Kalish was hired to draft a description, and along with drawings from architect Howard E, Hall a patent applied for.
My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theatre and it relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theatres whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities of the theater. My invention relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters wherein the performance, such as a motion picture or the like, may be seen and heard from a series of automobiles so arranged in relation to the stage or screen, that the successive cars behind each other will not obstruct the view.
The patent was submitted on Aug 6, 1932.
Mr. Hollingshead was serious, and cautious. A small scale model of just what one of these automobile theatres would like was already constructed. But he did not stop there and must have had great faith in his idea, wanting to take it from a salable concept to physical reality himself.
Apparently he had bounced the concept off associates and found a willing backer in Mr. John “Willie” Smith, car parking lot owner from Philly to New York , and relative of Richard Jr. Discussion ensued over a lunch paid for in Camden Script, a local stand in for US currency in those depressionary times, and it was agreed that Mr Smith would invest a large portion of $25,000 it would take to create the new formed company of Park In Theatres. Later Oliver Willets of Campbell soup would invest in the group, leaving Richard Jr with a 30% share of the holdings.
It must have been also decided to keep the construction in a local familiar area. State lines nary stopped Camden in the exchange of people, ideas, and products, and a hop skip away lay the great population of Philadelphia. A search for a location on the Philly side ensued up to the point of discovering a recently passed amendment that would allow late night amusements and Sundays back on the Camden side. The men had newly found a perfect location which was already well its way to becoming successful solely given to the freedom of the motor age.
In the Township of Pennsauken NJ, just outside of Camden many developments were taking place. Crescent Blvd was now connecting this pristine property with the bustling city of Philadelphia due to the construction of Ben Franklin Bridge. Once in Pennsauken, various routes could be taken to Atlantic City, Pinehurst, and beyond. This hub became what is still known as Airport Circle, the first and still remaining traffic circle in NJ. Previewing the search that Park In Theatres had made, the city of Philadelphia was searching for a convenient location which would serve as an air transportation center for the area. After a few false starts the location in Pennsauken was chosen. The airport was a smash success with many celebrities touching base there.
Beacon At Central Airport
Hangers at Central Airport
Capitalizing on this success entertainment which depended on the automobile sprouted up around the airport area, even the airport itself hosted events. People started parking outside the airport, day and night, to um watch airplane traffic. This led to many arrest, and as a reaction a private individual decided to pen up his property so lovers could swoon. If there ever was a place ripe for a drive in, this would be it.
Just east of airport circle (circled in yellow) a piece of land was chosen on the south side of Crescent Boulevard, which at that time flowed into Camden via Admiral Wilson Boulevard. The shapeless field was to be molded into what would become a pattern across the US by Mr. Edward Ellis. A shrewd deal was made with Mr. Ellis; in exchange for the work performed shares in the newly formed company were given. The rows, referred to as stallways, numbered 6 and increased in length and height as they fanned away from the screen location within a span of 500 ft. by 500 ft. There was a great amount of excavation needed as each stallway had a parking area graded at 5 degrees and filled higher than the previous, terracing the whole lot. Each stallway was spaced 50 ft apart, 16 foot devoted to parking and the remaining 34ft for driving to and from the spot. In Hollingshead’s prototype, cars pulled forward to the edge of a short cliff, held back by a guardrail. To leave one must reverse out back into the row. Gravel, cinders and oil was used to create a hard surface and keep dust to minimum. Cinders although cost effective, proved over time to add to the dust and created more maintenance. Total car capacity would be 336.
The building of the concrete retaining walls for these ramps and other structures on the lot would not go so smooth. In April Mr. Hollingshead and Mr. Smith, who seems to be the in the grass owners of Park In Theatres, hired 25 out of work men from Pennsauken Township, paying skilled labor 40 cents an hour, and unskilled 20 cents. Very soon Park In found itself the attention nearby Camden Labor Unions, since it they had hired nonunion workers at a rate far less than scale. Hundreds of picketers started to block the site. On April 29th Camden County Chamber of Commerce rep. Loyal Odhner hoped to broker a deal that would allow work to continue. A short meeting between union reps, Smith and Hollingshead ended with Smith announcing that Park In would be willing to increase pay by 50%, but could not afford the 1.00 to 1.25 per hr. for skilled and .40 per hour for unskilled labor.
This went little way in resolving the labor problem, as for another week picketing continued with opening season within inches.
Park In discovered that in order to get the job done on time it was in their own best interest to go ahead and hire the union workers, thus creating yet another problem.
The men who had been working at the site for lower than scale were enraged and a big scuffle erupted in which the Ernest Lewis, President of the Camden Trades Council, was injured. However no arrest were made, and things settled down on its own. On May 16th 1933 the Patent was granted to Mr. Hollingshead and full on construction continued.
The screen Tower was a massive beast of the times, reaching a height of 60 ft., 30 ft. deep, and a width including wings of 149 ft. The structure was faced with asbestos sheets finished to resemble great blocks of granite. In old black white photos, the effect looks complete.
The viewing screen area itself was 40 ft. high and 30 ft. wide, positioned above the ground by another 12 ft.
A great sign on the back of the tower read, Drive In Theatre. World’s First. Sit In Your Car. See and Hear Movies. 25cents per car, 25 cents per person. 3 or more person’s one dollar. Near the road where you enter the driveway, two wooden pillars with the words “Drive In” stood. Billboards on these pillars advertised coming attractions and the nights feature.
Further up the drive or holding area for autos, men accepted the tolls for admission. The projection booth was however much closer to the screen than our contemporaries due to the lighting technology of the times. It sat low in bomb shelter fashion, with not a snack bar in sight. Since the maximum distance that the projector could throw the image was 150 ft., it was back from the screen 133 ft.
The greatest difference and the most vastly improved upon today was the sound technology. Proudly trademarked by RCA as “directional sound” a distorted description of what amounted to 3 large 6 ft. square speakers and the only thing resembling direction was the way they were facing. Later reports after opening has the sound traveling for miles, and was a bane to the industry for another 10 years until RCA introduced the now classic and nostalgic personal speaker.
Over 200 trees of 12 to 20 ft. were planted around the perimeter with an eye on future privacy. For the time being a high fence was in place to help prevent people from sneaking in or parking on the edge of the lot.
Cost of the project range from 30,000 to 60,000 dollars. One could assume that the actual price was on the lower end of this scale as later drive ins of the era report those lower figures. But if you figure the price of land, construction, payouts, advertising and a host of other opening expense you could certainly see the price rising. This first Drive In was sparing no expense in an effort for success. The project never ran out of funding so it looks like a quality job was done in a decent time period, construction and promotion.
Copy from the era show a plethora of ads taken in local newspapers, along with national press stories in periodicals such as Popular Mechanics; it looks like someone already had a sharp eye on a future expansion of the franchise.
So with all this, what happened on opening night? The cars that fully packed the Theater due to free passes, curiosity, and other promotion could have seen this as a relief from the stifling daytime temps if it hadn’t been for the voracious mosquitoes that swarmed open windows. With the windows up the oppressive mugginess became unbearable. The directional sound as loud as it may be still had a Doppler effect with the sound lagging the picture worse and worse the further you were from the screen, to the point of confusion. Those parked at the edge of the fanned lot were considered to be in an area of distorted viewing and couldn’t see the screen all that well in the first place. It seems likely it would have been a disappointment to many and I suspect feedback initially was. Professional accounts however were upbeat and or least reported in a matter of fact manner without negativity.
Attendance in the following nights dropped quickly and show schedules changed. After a couple of evenings the three showings a night of the same film proved impractical and dropped to two. Refreshments also soon became available and were instantly popular.
Unfortunately for Park In Theatres the era in which they existed had films controlled by a monopolized industry, and since the motion picture industry would not supply new product to this upstart they found themselves over paying for outdated films. .
Wife Beware, was an old movie with a new name, came at a cost $400 for a four day rental, while indoor theaters could rent it for 1/5th of that price for a whole week.
This problem could not have helped declining attendance either. Yet something proved itself out over the following weeks and months, something that may have been predicted in hindsight or been brilliantly foreseen.
Theater workers noticed license plates from 43 states that first summer. There developed a unique following latter described by Hollingshead as inveterate smokers, large groups, families, and those who wish to have refreshments without disturbing others. The whole family can go and the children may be noisy and still safe. The infirmed may watch a motion picture without hindrance. This and a host of other unique perks that a drive in offers kept a steady flow of customers coming as employees reported.
Hollingshead kept his eye on the bigger picture. It was time to concentrate his efforts on expanding his franchise and protecting his patent. After a couple of years he sold the theater to another gentleman from NJ. Within a year the theater was moved to just outside of Union NJ.
Although the Camden location may have been closed in 1935, the 1,400 car location in Union survived from 1936 till 1983.
As for Mr. Hollingshead, his shift to franchising and patent is another story and post. As most know the sad ending is that he was not successful. By 1949, a discouraged and anguished man lost his fight for the right of patent. He once again found a successful career with Whiz Products which now had a thriving line within and outside the automotive field.
Almost as an omen, a great fire at the Whiz Camden facility marked his return to the family business and Richard Jr.s vow never to be involved with the motion picture industry again.
In our next post~
What the original location on Crescent looks like today. Hint: there’s been a whole lot of changes.