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The Drive-In Theatre: an American Classic


By Bob Pakes

00The drive-in theatre had it’s popularity peak in the 1950’s. At the end of this decade, over 4000 were spread across the USA. In the perception of many 50’s fans, the drive-in is as much part of the rock ‘n’ roll era as Elvis Presley and James Dean. But the first drive-in’s had seen the light of day over twenty years earlier.

In this topic we will present a pictorial history of the drive-in theatre and let the photos do (most of) the talking.



01 1933 1e NJ 03 1933The very first drive-in theatre opened in june of 1933, in New Jersey, and offered room for 400 cars. Being the first of it’s kind it was simply called Drive-In Theatre.
The owner’s slogan: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy your children are!”.

The information sheet below shows exactly how this “newly perfected system” worked.

02 1933



07 1935 Pico 04 1934 Pico L.A. 01By the end of the 1930’s, 17 more of these impressive structures had opened their doors.

To the right: In 1934 the Pico in L.A. was California’s first drive-in (and the 4th in the USA).

To the far-right: An interesting Pico-program from 1935 advertising the new “Sound Sensation” that brought sound to your car “in all its naturalness directly thru your radiator”.
Till this point the image and the sound (coming from one big speaker on a tower) were often out of sync.

05 1934 Pico L.A. 03 opening night 06 1934 Pico L.A. 02 opening nightSep. 9, 1934:
Opening night at the Pico.



08 1938 Pacific Drive, L.A. (Note the speakers) 01 09 1938 Pacific Drive, L.A. (Note the speakers) 02A closer look at this new sound sensation, shown here at the Pacific Drive in L.A., in 1938, which had speakers attached to a rail in front of your car.
This was a huge step forward from the original system, but still far from perfect, and it would take another 3 years before RCA Victor would introduce the first in-car speaker.

14 1937 12 1937 13 1937



11 1939 Flyer 10 1938Two nice flyers from respectively 1938 (the Miami Drive-In in Florida) and 1939 (the Shrewsbury Drive-In in Massachusetts).

“Any type of dress is correct at the Drive-In Theatre, and you can smoke, converse, and relax within your own car without the least disturbance to your neighbours in the audience”.






Natalie en Elvis (31-10-56) Natalie Elvis 1 Before we continue our history of the drive-in phenomenon, here’s an interesting conection between Elvis, RCA Victor and Natalie Wood.

It is well known that Elvis and Natalie dated for a short while in late 1956.


RCA 1947 1957 RCA Natalie WoodIn 1957, Natalie was hired by RCA Victor to popularize their drive-in speakers. RCA was of course Elvis’ record company.





Stay tuned for PART 2, in which we take a look at the 1940’s, before we dive into the glorious 50’s.



13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harvey #

    I want to go to a drive-in !!!

    April 2, 2013
  2. Top-notch research, partner! Great piece of American history. I had no idea these
    Drive-Ins date back all the way to the 1930s !

    April 3, 2013
  3. We had one in town, that closed down a few years ago. I did go a few times and it was pretty fun. They substitute the speakers for the radio. So you had to dial in a FM station to be able to listen to the audio.

    April 3, 2013
  4. Italy never had a cinema like this. But we had-have many open air cinemas, for people only, not for cars.

    Very interesting matter!

    April 5, 2013
  5. Cool stuff Ger. I used to be a projectionist at a drive-in. I’m sure when you get to the ’50s around part 3 (?) you’ll cover Elvis’ performances at the Joy in Minden.

    April 5, 2013
    • Bob #

      James, thanks for the link. Indeed, while searching for any connection with Elvis, all I was able to find for this article was the Minden gig. Very interesting of course, but probably more suitable for a topic like ‘Unusual performance locations’. That’s actually not a bad idea at all for a future topic!
      But seriously, there’s not much around of Elvis at the drive-in I’m afraid. I even only have about 20 old newspaper drive-in ads that feature an Elvis movie, which is close to nothing compared to regular cinemas.

      April 5, 2013
  6. All this cool stuff was compiled by my partner Bob.
    It’s all his research work.

    Anyway, great to welcome you on Echoes, James!

    April 5, 2013
  7. Peter Tiel #

    Excellent material, now you could make a side step to those wonderful 50’s 3D SciFi (Just seen ‘Creature FT Black lagoon’ in real 3D, quite Amazing!)

    April 5, 2013
  8. That’s a nice surprise, Mr. Bob !
    I love the way you’ve placed the photos and their crystal clear quality. I’m not saying this because we’re partners in crime on this site … I say it because you deserve a huge compliment for delivering top notch topics, again and again.
    You’re damn good!

    May 3, 2013
  9. Tony Stuchbury #

    It’s about time I said ‘hello’ here, and I know Ger will not mind me slapping Bob on the back for this topic … SUPERB !
    Beautiful, just beautiful!

    May 3, 2013
  10. Mitch #

    I grew up going to drive-in movies in Florida. Seems like there was an Elvis Presley triple feature every weekend.

    I live in Illinois now and there are 4 drive-in theaters still around here and my Daughter and I go just about every weekend.

    It helps me capture some of my youth. She loves going and we make it out Father-Daughter night.

    Thanks for all the pictures and I really like this new site.

    May 16, 2013
  11. Dick #

    Another great piece of information.
    This is what I want to read!! TOP.

    May 16, 2013
  12. Awesome site you have. Why did you ad snowing effect? Where did you find such awesome old drive-in ads? I’d like to get them too.

    January 2, 2019

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