A Contemporary Glimpse of The First Drive-In

Line drawing of the first drive-in theater

from the September 1933 issue of Popular Mechanics via Google Books

Here’s something fun that I ran into today, and I wanted to share it with you. In its September 1933 issue, Popular Mechanics ran a superb illustration of the very first drive-in theater, in Camden NJ. It had opened in June 1933, and its marquee simply read “Drive-In Theatre”.

I found this on Google Books, which includes a treasure trove of searchable issues of Popular Mechanics, Life, Billboard, and even some magazines that never mention drive-ins. I’ve read a lot of drive-in books, but I don’t recall ever seeing this wonderful, crisp drawing before. I presume that the copyright for this issue wasn’t renewed in 1961 and that it then slipped into the public domain. If I’m wrong, please correct me gently.

The headline above the illustration read Drive-In Movie Holds Four Hundred Cars. Here’s the one (long) paragraph that accompanied it:

“Motorists can sit in comfort in their own cars and enjoy the movies at a drive-in theater in Camden, N. J. This outdoor talking-picture theater accommodates 400 cars so that about 1,600 persons can view a performance without leaving their automobiles. This is made possible by seven rows of grades inclined so that vision from the rear car is not impaired by those in front. The cars are parked at the front of each row on a five-per-cent grade. Each aisle is fifty feet deep, giving ample room for cars to enter and leave, and the theater is entirely surrounded by trees. The motor-movie fans, even though seated in the last row, 500 feet from the screen, have no difficulty in seeing or hearing. The screen is sixty feet wide and a new method of controlled directional sound carries the words or music to each car with equal, modulated volume. The outdoor theater is expected to appeal particularly to those who do not like to drive through downtown districts to attend a movie.”

In his authoritative Drive-In Theaters, Kerry Segrave disputes those numbers, writing that the ground plan shows six rows for 336 cars, and that the screen was only 40 feet wide. The theater was sold within three years “to a man who ‘moved’ it to Union NJ.” Still, it’s fun to see such a clear picture of the start of something big.

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