nationwide mark anniversary of inception
By Charles Cassady
Published June 11, 2008
late Richard M. Hollingshead changed American cinema forever. Yet
he wrote no scripts (that we know about), received no Oscar, bankrolled
no blockbusters on studio backlots.
Hollingshead, an automotive-products and service dealer,
is credited as the inventor of the drive-in movie theater. On June
6, 1933, he opened the first ever drive-in at Camden, N.J., having
patented the idea the previous year. Hollingshead thus created an
American warm-weather tradition. And on June 6, drive-ins across
the nation marked the 75th-anniversary milestone of Hollingshead
Day — the day (or the night) of drive-in nostalgia, movies, prizes
(which has, at times, led the nation in numbers of drive-ins still
in operation) provided manifold opportunities for your and your
loved ones to observe Hollingshead Day. One was at the Auto-Rama
Twin in North Ridgeville that brought in another institution, the
comic book. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and comics writer/columnist
Michael San Giacomo, plus 22 artists, have collaborated on “Tales
of the Starlight Drive-In,” from the prominent comic publisher Image
Comics. An anthology in graphic-novel format, the book evokes the
life and times and patrons of a fictitious, archetypal American
drive-in. San Giacomo was there in person, along with an indeterminate
number of the artists, to sell and sign copies of the book June
Managed continuously by Deborah Sherman and her family,
the Auto-Rama has been showcased on cable television, in documentaries
and on the many Web sites that sustain the lore and appeal of the
drive-in movie experience in the 21st century. The Auto-Rama, inevitably,
was one of the theaters San Giacomo researched for inspiration for
“He picked my brain for it,” said Sherman. “He asked
if he could do this signing and I said sure.”
The past 75 years have not always been kind to the
drive-in business, though. Drive-ins were initially viewed negatively
by the Hollywood studios, as unfair (cheap to maintain and naturally-air
conditioned) competition for their deluxe movie-palace cinemas of
the 1930s. Major studios refused to rent out their newest and top-draw
features for the drive-in trade, and city councils legislated against
the upstart venues with anti-noise ordinances.
Even Richard Hollingshead’s Camden venture was not
much of a success, shutting down after a few seasons. Hollingshead
thought that since he had patented his drive-in design, riches in
royalties would pour in from other drive-ins. Only a fraction ever
It was America’s post-WWII economic boom and love
affair with the automobile (gas was cheap once upon a time) that
jump-started the drive in trade — a theater to which baby-boomer
families could take their babies, no matter how much they wailed;
where you didn’t have to dress up fancy; where attached playgrounds
occupied the kids.
The numbers of drive-ins peaked in 1958, with 4,063
operating. The drive-in experience even held its own against the
competition from television. Hollingshead would tell interviewers
his idea had literally saved the movie industry.
Then came the decline as suburban multiplexes and
the spread of VCRs and cable TV cut badly into the drive-in audience.
A 1990 census found only 910 drive-ins remaining in operation. Just
a few years ago Cleveland’s venerable three-screen Memphis Drive-In
shut down, as did the Miles Drive-In in Warrensville Heights (now
turning into “Cinema Village” condominiums).
Debbie Sherman does not like when commentators dwell
on the “doom and gloom” aspect. She would rather point to the success
of Shankweiler’s, of Orefield, Pa., the oldest surviving active
drive-in (opened 1934), and a few cases in the last decade when
aficionados have gone against the grain of DVD and satellite movies-on-demand
and actually re-opened or built new drive-ins.
“The bad economy is generally good for the movie business,”
said Sherman. “It’s even better for the drive-ins because it’s a
way to bring your whole family and have some family time together.”
What does threaten the drive-in-scape now, she said, are many of
the original owners reaching retirement age and unable to find successors
to take over. This happened with the Memphis, she said, which was
doing great business to the end.
“It’s very hard to find someone to work on a drive-in,”
she said. “Some close because it’s just not realistic to sell them.”
But she is in it for the long haul with the Auto-Rama,
whose longevity she attributes to being conveniently located near
a popular summer campground, providing a steady patronage. And,
of course, there’s Hollingshead Day and its festivities.
The admissions charge at the Auto-Rama is $8 per adult,
$3 per children 4 to 11. For more information about showtimes and
house policies (like the surcharge for bringing your own snacks
and drinks) go online to www.autoramadrivein.com.
The theater phone number is (440) 327-9595.