Features Philly Film — 09 May 2011 » Written by
Philadelphia-area drive-in theaters

The lovely home to the left is located in Riverton, NJ, a small town about 10 miles north of Camden.  It was here that Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. invented the drive-in theater back in 1932.  According to one of the house’s current next door neighbors, Hollingshead originally began experimenting with outdoor film screenings as a means of providing entertainment for his disabled mother.  He applied for the outdoor movie house patent that same year and opened the first drive-in theater in June of 1933 in nearby Pennsauken.  This theater was definitely located within a close proximity to Airport Circle, but reports of its exact whereabouts vary, placing it everywhere from Crescent Boulevard to Admiral Wilson Boulevard to Airport Highway.  If you’re having trouble visualizing the area, it’s where the large Circle Thrift and the “PUB” sign are located.

My roughneck Fishtown neighbors were sitting on their front stoops last night, which means that summer aka drive-in season is officially here.  Pennsylvania has a wealth of active, quality drive-in theaters, many of which date back 50 years or more.  Here are the ones within a reasonable driving distance:

Delsea Drive-In
Vineland, NJ (40 miles south of Center City)
Two screen drive-in dating back to 1949.

Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theater
Orefield, PA (60 miles northwest of Center City)
“America’s oldest drive-in” was opened in 1934 and was reportedly America’s second drive-in theater.  One screen.

Becky’s Drive-In Theater
Walnutport, PA (70 miles northwest of Center City)
A stone’s throw from Shankweiler’s sits Becky’s, a two-screener that opened back in 1946.

Pike Drive-In Theater
Montgomery, PA (170 miles north of Center City)
Began as a single screen in 1954, now three screens.

Just 10 miles northwest of Becky’s is the Mahoning Drive-In, a one-screener, and outside of that there are at least eight other active drive-in theaters in eastern-to-central PA.  So get out there this summer and support an American institution while you still can.

For further information on drive-in theater history I highly recommend Joe Bob Goes To the Drive-In by the great Joe Bob Briggs.  Out-of-print, but easy to find.

And if you’re interested in hosting your own drive-in theater experience, check out Horsham, PA’s On Location Cinema and invite Cinedelphia over.  We’ll bring the popcorn.

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About Author

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He's served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

(5) Readers Comments

  1. Nice article, but Montgomery is not 33 miles from CC. Maybe 133 as the crow flies.

  2. Thanks Dan! You’re right about Montgomery, which I have corrected, though Google Maps begs to differ…type it in and it places Montgomery 35 miles away from Philly, right over the town of Skippack. Is this a different, tinier Montgomery, PA? In any case, the Pike Theater is indeed about three hours away from Philly, but still well worth a visit.

  3. Hollingshead was the gent’s last name, and a historical guide to Merchantville lists 19 East Chestnut Avenue as Mr. Hollingshead’s residence and, by extension, the birthplace of the drive-in. I mention this because it’s half a block from my house. Don’t take that away from me!

    A doc my friend made on the last drive-in in NJ (until Delsea opened, at least):

    http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1043979852270

  4. @Phil: Hollingshead was indeed the gent’s last name and while he may have lived in Merchantville at some point, all of the (brief) research I did places the birth of the drive-in at the Riverton home above (there were other Hollingsheads in the area though, maybe he had a relative in Merchantville?). Indeed, both the owner of the above house and his neighbors are well aware of its historical importance, which was covered by, according to a neighbor, “U.S. History Magazine” this very month. I couldn’t actually find a magazine by that title that contains said article online, but odds are that some publication with the word “history” in the title currently has an article about U.S. drive-ins…let us know if you can find it.

  5. thank you for this very helpful post! hope to make it to Mahoning tonight.

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