Movie Theaters

A Brief History of American Cinema Houses

By Phillip López Jiménez

As I write this piece the big news in Hollywood is Steven Spielberg’s misgivings about whether or not Netflix films should be allowed to be nominated for Academy Awards as they are only played in cinemas for limited time to qualify for the award. One of his reasons, and he has many, is that cinema should be a communal experience shared in a movie theater. Is he right?

I’ll summarize my thoughts on that later, but for now I’ll go into the ins-‘n-outs and what-have-yous of movie theaters, movie palaces, bijou’s, grind-houses, drive-in theaters lobbies, lobby card’s, half sheet’s, one sheet’s, 3 sheet’s, 6 sheet’s and other ephemera that goes along with movie theater’s. First though, I feel I must share my first movie going experiences.

16 & 35 mm Film Canisters

We stock Film Storage Containers for 16-mm and 35-mm film. These containers are made from inert, archival polypropylene. Containers come with ventilation slots to facilitate air exchange. Raised ribs on the floor of the of the containers help with air circulation.

Growing up in working-class Orange County in the 70’s -hard to believe OC was once working class as it was mostly the aero industry, orange groves, cattle ranches and shopping malls when I was a kid, and I’m not that old- I had access to many movie theater’s: UA theaters at the malls, old and crumbling independent cinemas, the Edwards Cinema chain (that was an OC thing until they expanded and failed in the late 90s) and of course the movie palaces in Los Angeles.

Young Phil

The first theater I went to, and it pretty much was our go-to movie theater, was Edwards Cinema West in Westminster and the first film that I think I saw, we saw a lot, was perhaps LIVING FREE in 1972, that or SONG OF THE SOUTH which was re-released the same year I think, I had the Uncle Remus LP LIVING FREE, this was the sequel to 1966 hit BORN FREE which earned composer John Berry his first Oscar and the hit song received an Oscar as well.  After this it was visions of BED KNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, with spoons full of sugar, cartoon animals dressed as Robin Hood characters, all accompanied to the sounds of my father snoring. The last G rated film I saw there was 1975’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD with Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, after that I couldn’t take it anymore but at 7 years old I could only see G. Later that year everything would change.

Most kids my age had hippie-looking parents with handle bar mustache’s and polyester clothes; my parents were depression babies and had me later in life, so, it was Buster Brown’s for school and little suits for church and grandma’s. I couldn’t do cool things like wear Hang Ten t-shirt’s, have long hair, go to the drive-in or see PG films. When friends invited me to see BILLY JACK or GONE IN 60 SECONDS it was always “No!”, then, that summer, a film came out that everybody and their grandmother had seen….JAWS! I knew my Mom would never take me and my father was very strict but he loved action films, so I thought if I could wear him down I may get a chance to see it; all summer long that’s what I did and he eventually caved.

bu-bu, bu-Bu, Bu-bu, BU-BU!

We arrived there early and the line was already starting to grow in front of the Builders Emporium store next to the theatre. This was already four or five months after it opened and it was still popular, you don’t get that today. We got our tickets then waited in line. Once in, we got the popcorn, drinks and our seats. I was so excited!

It was like I had never been to the cinema before and we were in the main auditorium that I new so very well. Then the lights went out and the curtain opened and all around me was the ethereal sound of water. The Universal logo appears and I thought “Oh, boy my first big boy move.” Instantly I’m under water, bu-bu, bu- Bu, Bu-BU, BU-BUU…then calm. It really is a great prelude.

I read that originally the angle was to be from inside the shark’s mouth. Jaws you get it? I’m glad the ‘Berg chose not to do that. Everything was great and thank God we didn’t see Chrissy too naked or I may have been taken out of the theater; the old man was a bit of a prude. The big telling moment, for my dad anyway, was when the boating instructor gets his leg bit off. My dad looked at me hoping I wasn’t scared and I looked back with an enthusiastic smile and his face changed to “oh, oh what did I just do?” This movie was a pivotal experience in my life. I got the Jaws Log book not long afterwards; it would be my first non-children’s book I ever read and I knew then what I wanted to do with my life, become a beer swilling, tin can crunching, shark hunter, no, but perhaps I should have. No… I chose to be a filmmaker, but it didn’t really work out that way and instead, I became an editor, a career that unfortunately is now behind me.

For much of my life going to the movies was perhaps the most exciting part of the week. The smell of buttered popcorn and the taste of carbonated soda was enough to make me happy. Sitting in those velour seats waiting for the curtains to open and show the picture, I remember seeing JAWS and the projector beaming the image of the Universal logo while the curtain was still sliding open was incredible. So where and how did this all begin?

The First Cinemas

1884 was the first time a movie was projected before a captivated audience. The film was a short directed by inventor Charles Francis Jenkins who made the film to show off his invention, a movie projector called the Phantoscope. The film was also one of the first to be presented in color as Jenkins hand tinted each frame. For the next couple of years Jenkins, along with his new partner Thomas Armat, refined the Phantoscope and patented their invention. Jenkins sold his interests to Thomas and Thomas sold all right to Thomas Edison who renamed it The Vitascope.

Previous to the Vitascope, Edison used his Kinetoscope to showcase his films. This was a peep show devise where one would drop a coin and watch the “flicks”. Owners of Penny Arcades would purchase a few of these plus pay for the up-keep, much like a Pinball or Soda machine. Edison figured his Vitascope would be more efficient, one machine to show the film on a large screen so many patrons could watch. Vaudeville merchants bought the projectors and films, mostly made by Edison, and showed them on the bottom half of vaudeville acts. This proved to be quite lucrative and the showings became more popular. The Edison Vitascope is not to be confused with Warner Bros Vitascope which was an early wide screen (65MM) process that was first used in their Warner Bros. Theater In Hollywood with the screening of the Warner Bros-First National picture THE LASH (The 65MM version is now considered a lost film).

Archival Poster Frames

27 x 41″ Poster Frame. Comes with a .040″ thick crystal clear UV blocking acrylic front sheet, a 10 mil crystal clear polyester separator sheet; a Blue-gray B flute archival corrugated back sheet and two polyester hang tabs.


One of the first exhibitors was William T. Rock. He purchased the last available state right’s to use Edison’s Vitascope from Raff & Gammon. They were in charge of marketing for Vitascope, the territory Rock purchased was Louisiana. He used it for a bit around New Orleans, as business grew him and partner, Walter Rainwright, got themselves a store room and installed chairs and a projection booth on 623 Canal St., It’s now a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. After his success he went on to be an executive at Edison’s Vitascope were he produced the short RAFFLES, THE AMATEUR CRACKSMAN (1905) directed by Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson. Bronco Billy was the first Cowboy hero in Cinema history. Edison’s Vitascope made many films and for a short while had a virtual monopoly as the only filmmaker around. Edison eventually phased out the Vitascope for his own Projecting Kinetoscope.


1905 was also the year that Carl Laemmle moved from Oshkosh, Nebraska to Chicago, IL to see about a raise as a book-keeper for the Continental Clothing Co. Unfortunately this did not go over as planned and he found himself out of a job. While walking around town he saw people lined up to see a movie at a converted store. He was not really all that interested in motion pictures, but he was interested in making money and soon discovered that all it would really took was about 1,200 bucks to purchase a projector and get a store room to show movies. Laemmle’s The White Front Theatre would reside at 909 Milwaukee Ave. and within a month Laemmle recouped his 1,200 bucks, marking the beginning of the Laemmle Theatre chain. Now that Carl Laemmle had a chain of movie theaters, he followed First National’s lead and created an exchange calling it Laemmle Film Service and this would be the largest in the country.


A couple of years earlier, in 1902, entrepreneur Thomas Lincoln Tally built the first movie theater in downtown Los Angeles, California from the ground up, it was called The Electric Theater. This theater was the beginning of the transformation of the picture business. Tally, along with partner James Dixon (JD) Williams, created the First National Circuit, an association of independent theaters, and set up offices in every state to distribute films and ephemera to go along with them. This proved to be quite lucrative and the two decided to try their hand at film production starting First National Films.

First National may be a footnote today but they proved to be a cinematic juggernaut in the early days of cinema. They now had a trust of over 600 theaters to distribute their pictures and plenty of money; they signed Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford at a million dollars each, which was unheard of at the time. It paid off as Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID was a massive hit. It was at about this time that they purchased a 62 acre lot in Burbank to build their studio. But First National wasn’t the only trust.


For years Thomas Edison had been in courts trying to fight for ownership of his motion picture patents. He eventually got his way and the Motion Picture Patents Company was formed. This “Trust” was for his Vitagraph, Essanay and Lubin film companies and its goal was to squash independent film producers and exchanges giving Edison absolute power, at least on the east coast. Any producer wishing to purchase any of his patented products had to be licensed as well as pay a fee. Edison didn’t just sell gear; he also sold movies and related ephemera as well. At this time Edison standardized the poster sizes 27 x 41”= One-sheet, 41 x 81”= 3-sheet, 81 x 81”= 6-sheet, and 246 x 108” = 24-sheet or billboard size; and also lobby and insert cards which are 11 x 14”. These were all created and printed by lithographers (see my other article on lithography and what a cool process that is.)

Carl Laemmle was a loyal costumer and figured Edison would let him slide but Edison’s spokesman, a Wall Street banker named Jeremiah J. Kennedy, said “nope!” Laemmle must have thought “F this guy” as he immediately went out and bought a used camera, hired actor/director William Ranous and made a one-reeler called HIAWATHA in 1909 and started a film division cleverly called Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP) in Fort Lee New Jersey, where he was now living.

The picture proved popular and Laemmle made more, to the anger of Jeremiah J. Kennedy. The “Trust” went after Laemmle and his employees litigiously and sometimes physically, real mobster stuff here. Laemmle’s vigilance and perseverance served him well and in April of 1912 the U.S. Government filed a petition against the “Trust” and it was dissolved.  Two months later Carl Laemmle along with Pat Power’s Picture Plays and Bison Life Motion Pictures merged. Not knowing what to call their new company Laemmle looked out the window and saw a wagon passing by on the street below that said Universal Pipe Fittings and decided to call it Universal Film Manufacturing Company or more commonly known as Universal Pictures.

A New Loew In Film.

Adolf Zuckor

Adolph Zuckor, had immigrated to the states in 1891 when he was 18. He got into the upholstery biz and later moved out to the mid-west to start a furrier. This business was very successful and enabled him to go back to New York a very wealthy man where he purchased himself 800 acres of land for his estate and built his home and a golf course which is still around today as The Paramount County Club. His cousin, who had been in business with Mitchell and Moe Mark, who had built the very first movie theater for exclusively showing movies called the Edisonia Hall (this theater served over 200,000 people in two years before shutting down as most theaters didn’t last long since cinema was still seen as a fad, this one, however, lasted the longest.) had convinced Zukor to invest in a chain of movie theaters that they were starting up.

They started The Automatic Vaudeville Co. and started opened up Penny Arcades in New York. Marcus Loew, another immigrant, invested into it as well. Zucker and Loew each started creating more Nickelodeon’s as these were relatively inexpensive to create. They created more than just movie thrills but movie-thrill rides like Hale Scenic Tours (kind of like Disneyland’s Star Tours ride), guests would go into a railroad carriage with a conductor and shaking seats with a travel film projected on the screen. They’d have singers and other acts going on as well. This became immensely successful and Zucker and Loew decided to pull their subsidies together creating Loew’s Consolidated Enterprises with Zucker as treasurer.  


11 x 14″ Art Presentation Book for Art, Photos & Prints. Book size: 12-3/8 x 15-3/8 x 1″. Page size: 11-1/2 x 14-1/8″.


During this time on the east coast six immigrants controlled the bookings for most of the top theatrical attractions; they were called The Theater Syndicate. They didn’t just control bookings but performers as well, this group started in 1896 but by the end of 1910 they where losing control as many artists where leaving to join with The Shubert Brothers theater chain. Another reason for the demise of The Theater Syndicate was that many of the smaller independent theaters got together and formed the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America (MPTOA) to make sure the Syndicate could not control the industry.

Zucker eventually stepped down and left to concentrate on film production. Marcus Loew, however, continued to grow and acquiring the financially hurting Metro Pictures Corp.

Film producer Samuel Goldfish partnered with Archibald Selwyn, a theater owner and Broadway producer, and formed Goldwyn Pictures, an amalgamation of their names Goldfish and Selwyn. Selwyn was eventually pushed out and Samuel Goldfish, now Goldwyn, after a legal name change, wanted to be a powerhouse like First National and vertically move into production, distribution and exhibition but he too was voted out and replaced with Lee Shubert, of The Shubert Brothers.

Lee Shubert convinced Loew to purchase a controlling interest in Goldwyn Pictures, who by now were well known as their logo had and would continue to be iconic, Leo The Lion and there was no mistaking a Goldwyn picture with his mighty roar! But Loew knew that Shubert was no Samual Goldwyn and needed a creative lion to run this new merger of Metro and Goldwyn pictures. His pick was was producer Louie B. Mayer.

Like the others, Meyer was an immigrant, and too, like the others, started out in exhibition but wanted to move into the production side so he started Metro Pictures. However, he left it to go to Los Angeles to produce pictures there and started Louis B. Meyer Productions. When he got wind that Loew had bought his old company Metro Pictures he asked if he could merge as well. So, Marcus Loew had his new movie studio with a guy he absolutely knew could, not only run it, but make classy pictures that people would want to watch and Metro Goldwyn Meyer would go on to be the crown jewel in Hollywood.

Did I mention that Goldwyn Pictures also owned land in Culver City California? Unfortunately three years after this deal was made Marcus Loew passed away from a heart attack and was never able to see just how big MGM would become. As for his name, well I can say most people are aware of Loew’s theater chain which later merged into AMC Theaters but some of the theaters he owned are still with us like The Metropolitan Opera House.

Now, back to the west coast in the 20s.

First National Pictures was having a virtual monopoly on films and distribution, so The Motion Picture Theater Owners of America (remember them?) saw them as a film trust and fought to end their monopoly, but failed; all of their holdings and competition were starting to weaken the company so you can imagine what happened next. Paramount, which was a film distributor started by W.W. Hodkinson, started doing the same as First National, building their own movie houses and film exchanges and tried to maneuver a hostile take over of First National by buying up some of First National member firms, but they failed.


Paramount Pictures Entrance

With the demise of the syndicate, Charles Frohman, one of the six men of the Theatre Syndicate, joined up with Adolph Zukor to form Famous Players and,along with Lasky Pictures, signed a distribution deal with the largest studio, Paramount Pictures. This deal was fair and lucrative but they wanted more. Adolph Zucker had a plan, he started buying up a ton of Paramount stocks and gaining power and influence within the board at Paramount and eventually shoved out W. W. Hodkinson and replaced him with board member Hiram Abrams who announced “On behalf of Adolf Zucker, who purchased my shares in Paramount, I bring this Meeting to Order” and Famous PlayersLasky and all their subsidies, including Paramount Pictures became Famous PlayersLasky Corporation. A year later Famous Players, Charles Frohman, would die aboard the USS Lusitania, as for ousted W.W. Hodkinson, he worked in distribution for a time before leaving the picture business altogether to get into commercial aviation, starting the Central American Aviation Corporation; He’ll always be remembered as The Father of Hollywood and the creator of Paramount’s name (named after an apartment house) and logo, a sketch he drew on a napkin of a mountain by his family home in Utah.


Warner Bros. Theatre

Sales Manager and VP of Warner Bros. Sam Warner, announced that the studio was going to build a new theater building in Hollywood, they had bought the Piccadilly Theater in New York for a tune of $835,000, remodeled it, re-named it and opened it with the picture THE LIMITED MAIL. This new theater was to be their west coast version. Sam Warner’s pet project was to be a lavish $1,250,000, but after the initial design by architect G. Albert Landsbourgh with its six stories, Spanish-Gothic theme, a ballroom, a roof garden, office and retail spaces, it ballooned to over $2 million. At the time Warner Bros. was one of the smaller studios and this was an extravagance that studio President Harry Warner was weary of, but Sam really believed in this project and tried to think of ways to bring money in, but as the old saying goes “it takes money to make money.” Sam convinced Harry to purchase radio station KFWB and put them into the offices in the building. He also met with General Electric who showed him something really cool…their new synchronized sound discs. Films with sound was around prior to these discs but the tech was archaic to say the least and not too many theaters offered it. Sam was amazed at this demo and talked the already frustrated Harry into investing in it.

While the building was being built Sam created a subdivision and called it Vitaphone and continued to refine this new sound system by making a few short films which impressed his other brother, head of production Jack Warner, so much so that he added some sound effects to their new John Barrymore picture DON JUAN. They premiered the film at their now flagship theater in New York and it was an instant success. Sam, enthusiastically, called for more Vitaphone pictures but the conservative Harry said “no” for fear of it becoming a financial burden. Again Sam won and got his way and they went into production on a film staring singer Al Jolson called, you guessed it, THE JAZZ SINGER.

Inside Warner Theatre

Sam thought that THE JAZZ SINGER would be the perfect picture to open their newly named but still unfinished Warner Bros. Theater in Hollywood. But no one thought about acoustics and Sam brought back G. Albert Landsbourgh for more designs including adding two large antennae for KFWB with the words WARNER on them. This cost Harry an additional 1.5 million bucks. Unfortunately Harry got the old “we’re behind schedule and over budget” from his brother and scheduled the premiere in New York for October 6, 1927. The picture was to be only synced sound during the musical numbers but when Al Jolson said his now famous ad-lib “Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Sam insisted they keep that line in. Unfortunately the day of the premier none of the brothers Warner attended. Samuel Warner died of a brain hemorrhage the day before, he was only 40.

Poster Storage Box – Holds 25 Posters

Flat Poster Storage Box. 36-1/2 x 24-1/2 x 3-1/4″. (L x W x D) outside dimensions This super sturdy, 275 lb. test Kraft corrugated box allows for safe storage of 22-25 flat posters with backings

The Warner Bros Theater in Hollywood opened April 26, 1928 where it screened the GLORIOUS BETSY; this was Warner Bros. third foray into talkies after their THE JAZZ SINGER and TENDERLOIN. The theater was massive, sporting 2700 seats. THE JAZZ SINGER’S Al Jolson was there to MC the grand opening and to dedicate the theater to Sam Warner. Warners Vitaphone system didn’t last long as FOX’s Movietone, which had a magnetic strip on the film for sound took over, but Sam Warner will always be remembered as “The father of talking pictures.”  

After the success of Warner Bros.’ THE JAZZ SINGER and their other Vitaphone talkies, the studio bought First National and moved their offices from Hollywood to First National’s studio in Burbank where they reside to this day. For a while the two studios were somewhat separate entities Warner Bros/First National is on most posters from 1929 until about 1959. In 2002 Warner Bros. eventually sold the rights to First National but the early First National films had been bought up by Ted Turner, who Warner Bros eventually bought out, so they are back at the now newly named WarnerMedia. Ted Turner bought most of MGM’s films as well giving WarnerMedia one of, if not, the largest film library on the planet, that’s why TCM is such a great channel and we’ll see what the future holds for us cinephiles once this new merger works the kinks out.

Modern day Warner Theatre

What happened to Warner Bros. Theater in Hollywood? On April 25, 1953 it was re-opened as Warner Cinerama but reverted back once the fad faded, it’s last three-strip Cinerama presentation was HOW THE WEST WAS WON. Later the upstairs balcony section, which is huge, was walled off and made into two cinemas. It later became The Hollywood Pacific Theater. In 1982 I saw THE THING here for my second time on the big screen and all I can say is that screen is massive and the sound system was incredible. I had seen THE THING a week before at The City Shopping Center in Orange on a screen the size of a large flat screen and boy what a difference.

The theater was shut down after the Northridge earthquake and some flooding during the subway construction in the 90’s but later re-opened, first as USC’s Digital Cinema Lab then as a church. There has been some talk of a restoration and I very much hope that this happens. It would be great if Warner Bros. buys it back and restores it, much the Way Disney did with The El Capitan, a theater that was once a rat-trap in the 70’s and 80’s. Another reason Warner Bros or rather WarnerMedia should buy it, is that the ghost of Sam Warner is known to be haunting it, seriously.  People have witnessed Sam walking the halls, stepping into the elevator and pacing the lounge in the basement…hmmm, sounds like a case for Scoobydoo and he’s owned by WarnerMedia, maybe make a good CONJURING film too! It could even have its premiere at the theater, now how’s that for marketing?


G. Albert Landsbourgh, the architect behind the Warner Bros Theatre in Hollywood, was no stranger to designing movie palaces as he designed four others in LA alone: THE WILTERN, THE EL CAPITAN, THE PALACE and the mighty ORPHEUM.

The Orpheum

Located in Downtown L.A., THE ORPHEUM THEATRE was once considered one of the grandest theatres in the world. Opened on February 15, 1926, it showcased two vaudeville acts a day. This is where The Marx Bros were performing their live show of THE COCOANUTS in the evening while making the film version at Paramount during the day! The theatre is absolutely stunning with its two massive chandeliers each costing a whopping 45,000 bucks. It was one of the longest running vaudeville theatres, continuing on into the 50s.

It continued playing movies as well, but the years weren’t that kind. The L.A. conservancy would do shows here to raise money for restoration. I remember going to one of their spook shows, METROPOLIS, FREAKS and SUSPIRIA with burlesque dancers in between movies. METROPOLIS was accompanied by their mighty Wurlitzer organ that has been there since the opening. In 2000 it closed for movies but was beautifully restored and brought to life again and is now a venue for live acts and shows like AMERICAN IDOL.

Probably the most famous movie palace is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, now the TCL Chinese Theatre, but Grauman made a couple before it: The Egyptian and The Million Dollar Theater. After his success with theaters in Northern California Sid Grauman moved down to L. A. where he sold his theaters from up north to Paramount Pictures’ Adolph Zucker, who also loaned him money to build what would become The Million Dollar Theater.

The Chinese Theater

The theater, built in 1918, was designed by Albert Carey Martin in the Spanish Colonial style and its name comes from its price tag, although I’m sure it cost a lot more as it’s pretty damned opulent. Its auditorium holds 2,345 seats and was built just like the others, for vaudeville and movies. Uruguayan artist Joseph Mora created the elaborate sculpture work including busts, skulls, and other ornamental designs. The theater also had a full bar on the second floor which was unique at the time.

After Grauman, the theatre was taken over by The Orpheum Circuit, then from 1940-1989 Frank Fouce, a Spanish language film distributor took over and it became the go-to theatre for Mexican Cinema in the L.A. area. Antonio Aguilar’s Mexican, singing ranchero, did live performances and a rodeo show. The theatre became so popular that it helped launch Fouce’s Spanish International Theatre Co. which The Million Dollar theatre and now The Mayan theatre were apart of. Now, every once in a while they have screenings there; I saw PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and MICKEY ONE a few years ago and was amazed at the size and splendor of the theatre. THE MILLION DOLLAR THEATRE was seen in BLADE RUNNER and many other films; The Mayan has been in a lot of films like THE BODYGUARD.

Bags Unlimited – Poster Display Free-standing <br><font color=red> Holds 60 images </font><br> up to 22 x 28″

Poster Display Free-standing <br><font color=red> Holds 60 images </font><br> up to 22 x 28″


With all the studios now firmly established, each studio had their own theaters and exchanges in all the states. The studios had their own art departments to create posters, press kits and other ephemera but all the studios agreed that it would be more economical to outsource all of this work and in 1920 the National Screen Service (NSS) was created.

The NSS didn’t just create ephemeral products but movie trailers as well. In 1940 they signed an exclusive contract with every studio to do all their campaigns and outsourced the artwork to ad agencies. One of the top agencies was Bill Gold Advertising.

Artist Bill Gold got his start with Warner Bros and was the first to do the so called modern movie poster. His first was YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, but it was CASABLANCA, with the many heads, that producers seemed to like the most, a nice image of Bogie with all the heads of the stars surrounding him. When he started his own firm he had many talented artists like the legendary Bob Peak, Tom Jung, Richard Amsel, Frank Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrandt, all illustrating for him. The list of movie posters that came out of his studio is amazing.

Eventually in the 80s the NSS was dissolved and marketing firms started popping up, boutique agencies that created trailers and print ads, which is where I got my start as an editor. By the mid-2000s though the studios brought the work in-house, creating their own agencies, as editing gear got cheaper and many of the marketing boutiques died out.    


My first experience at the Drive-In was as a 16-year-old in the 80s. The film was RISKY BUSINESS; we mostly just drank beers out of a trunk, (or was it wine coolers? It was the 80’s). The next time was FATAL ATTRACTION and an ice cold Party Ball in the trunk, remember those five gallons of beer in a plastic balls and ya had to buy your own pump? If you ever wondered how it all began here’s the story, about the drive-ins not the party balls.

Richard M. Hollingshead took a job with his old man’s company, Whiz Auto Parts, selling their car care products. Wanting to excel at his sales job and this being the depression he made a list of things people weren’t willing to sacrifice; Food, clothing, cars and after speaking with a movie theater manager he added movies, as the manger informed him that no matter how broke people were they still keep-a-comin’. And no wonder as films were great back then!

Vintage Drive-In

Hollingshead hit drafting table and drew up plans that could possibly move their products. He came up with something that was pretty cool, a Hawaiian themed gas station. The Hawaiian Village had thatched roof buildings, gas pumps that resembled palm trees, a restaurant and an outdoor movie theater. Patrons could watch a movie while having their car serviced. This seemed like a swell idea but business dropped off in the evening and the whole restaurant/gas station/theater thing seemed a bit awkward for one location. Hollingshead hit the drawing board again and focused more on the outdoor theater this time. He drew up plans for how he could cram 400 cars on a lot; he worked with RCA on a sound system that would allow everyone to hear and figured out a way to keep them pesky moths from gravitatin’ towards the light of the projector.

Shortly after sending his drawings to the patent office, he and his cousin formed Park-In Theaters Inc. and on June 6, 1933 after his patent approval he opened his Camden, New Jersey Drive-In with the British comedy WIVES BEWARE starring Adolph Menjou.

Hollywood had a virtual monopoly on movie theaters, so, access to major releases was often very difficult to say the least. He charged .25 cents per car plus .25 cent per person or a buck for three or more people. His diligence paid off as it was sold out. Soon Drive-Ins popped up everywhere, particularly in California where nice weather and car culture abounds. These California Drive-Ins gave the bird to ol’ Hollingshead and never bothered to license their theaters with him and some on the east coast paid licensing fees to a newly formed company called Drive-In Theater Corp. and Hollingshead found himself pursuing many lawsuits.

The Drive-in continued to grow despite Hollywood’s continued view that they were just a passing fad, but there were still issues, mainly sound quality, but that would change in the late 40’s when RCA developed the first in-car speakers, but really, the Drive-ins heyday was far from over, in fact it was about to explode.

By 1953 the number of Drive-Ins grew to nearly 4,000; just a couple years earlier the number was around 1,700. Despite this overwhelming rise of drive-ins, Hollywood still stuck its ever-increasing arrogant nose up at them, often referring to them as “Passion pits.” This attitude really was just what indie moguls Samual Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson of American International Pictures and indie filmmaker Roger Corman needed as they embraced the Drive-in whole heartedly, delivering double features of juvenile delinquents, invaders from outer space and rockabilly hellcats;  Films with character, films with panache, films that this new audience of sophisticated baby boomers could relate to, monsters from outer space terrorizing horny teenagers, and they had more money to spend, more free time than their parents and they packed the drive-ins around the country!

In the 60s indie filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis made headlines with his film BLOOD FEAST, considered the first gore film, had cars lined up for miles at a drive-in in Peoria. H.G. Lewis, The Godfather of Gore, would bring his prints directly to the Drive-in owners, making them offers they couldn’t refuse, often 50 percent of the box office take, a heck of a lot more than of a percentage the studios would give. H.G. Lewis would become the drive-ins best friend, especially in the south.

Corrugated Poster Backings

We stock 5 grades of Poster Backing Boards: including corrugated board, acid-free board, foam board.


Well, that about sums up the history of movie theaters and studios, as the two have a symbiotic relationship. I don’t really know what the future holds regarding cinema and the theater going experience, but I do know one thing, it will never be what it once was. I’ve been compiling a list of every single film I’ve seen at the movies and the theaters I’ve seen them in, and a lot of great memories came flooding through my mind “Oh ya I was dating that one girl then, that was the time…that was when…” lots of great memories. Will new memories be created? Not for me I don’t think. I miss the curtains opening, I miss the small velour seats, I miss my shoes getting stuck to floors at cheap grindhouse theatres (I didn’t get to those, maybe another blog).

I miss looking at lobby cards while waiting for my parents to pick me up as a kid, would parents even drop off their 7 year old kid alone today? I sure as hell wouldn’t, but things were different.

I remember starting to step outside and a teenage usher said “hey your dad said to stay right over there and wait” they don’t even have ushers anymore, maybe if they did the Aurora shooting never would have happened. Going to the movies is no longer fun, but I still go once in a blue moon and usually to see an old picture. I miss seeing a projected film, opening day of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the 70mm image started bubbling then burned when Han says “See, my frieennnnd” people laughed and went out to the lobby to smoke. Today there’d be a friggin’ riot, it happened at a THE LAST JEDI and there was one. I remember sleeping overnight in line for INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, the movie sucked but I had a blast in line, or the time I watched ALIENS on opening day; I saw an evening show and there was no bus home so I slept in the bushes, I was 17 and thought that was cool. But yeah the experience is really no longer fun for me.  Like Roy Neary in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I’d like to take the first UFO and get off this burg.



The Paramount Story John Douglas Eames CrownPublishersInc.

The Universal Story Clive Hirschhorn Crown Publishers Inc.

Cinema Under The Stars: America’s Love Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater

The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown Robert Berger and Anne Conser