While a trip to a drive-in movie sounds like a trip to yesteryear, all it really takes is an hour-plus drive south of the U.S. 1 region to Vineland, New Jersey.
There the Delsea Drive-In Theater — the only operating drive-in theater in the state where drive-ins were born — is a “living” monument to entertainment history. It also provides the opportunity for families, friends, or dates to have an authentic old-style New Jersey experience.
Camden’s Richard Hollingshead is the mastermind who linked America’s love of movies and automobiles back in the 1930s. Okay, there were also a few personal connections: his father owned Whiz Auto Supplies and his film-fan mother was reported to be too hefty to sit in a conventional theater chair.
No matter what his reasoning, the inspired Hollingshead experimented in the driveway of his Camden house, using different projection and sound techniques, even showing films from the hood of his car and on a makeshift screen fashioned between trees. Other experiments included putting a radio behind the screen, testing film projection in the rain, and devising parking arrangements for viewing and volume.
The entrepreneur filed a patent on his idea in May, 1933, and with a $30,000 investment opened the world’s first drive-in — or originally called a park-in — theater on June 6, 1933, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. Admission was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person (a dollar maximum per car).
After World War II drive-in theaters became more and more popular, and a challenge to Hollingshead’s patent was successful in 1949. That launched the golden era of drive-ins in the 1950s and ’60s, and soon more than 5,000 outdoor screens spanned the continent.
Today there are fewer than 400. Rising real estate prices and changes in theater-going habits — from multiplexes to video rentals to Netflix — all contributed to the waning of the great outdoor screens.
The Delsea Drive-In’s history mirrors the decline and its resurrection. It opened the same year that Hollingshead lost his patent and operated until 1987. It then languished like other movie drive-ins that one can still glimpse in New Jersey and elsewhere (such as the tattered screen on the salt marsh outside Atlantic City).
Fast forward to 2003 when Dr. John DeLeonardis, a pediatrician, purchased the site with the intent of turning it into a skate park and place for kids to exercise — too much childhood obesity, he noted in past interviews. But when he noticed the 1970s-vintage screens still had some life to them, he decided to revive the theater. Since then he has maintained a New Jersey tradition and provided area audiences — this reporter included — with the opportunity to do something different.
My visit — along with my wife, Liz — to the Delsea Drive-In starts with an entrance checkpoint as if crossing a border — a strict adherence to rules makes the visit positive for everyone, the website notes.
As cars wait, a young thin man with a cap and flashlight appears and politely requests that trunks be open. In addition to the time-honored cat-and-mouse game between drive-in employee and hidden passengers, the commandment-laden sign at the entrance looks as if it were written on Mount Sinai: “No Pets, No Outside Food or Beverages, No Alcohol.” And the border patrol is serious about detecting it.
One of the underlying concerns is for the drive-in to make money and the Delsea Drive-In website notes that the enterprise “depends on the restaurant concession sales to keep its workers employed.”
Other admonishments are a bit more difficult to detect: no photography (mainly no filming the film) and no bare feet (health and insurance).
After clearing the checkpoint, the car is moved ahead to the ticket gate. The cost for two adults on this Saturday night is $21.40. Exact change is requested, and credit cards are accepted.
The Delsea is a two-screener. The prototype drive-in had just one. But during the later years of the golden age — when there were more frenzied attempts to attract the waning drive-in viewer — there were several screens showing several films at the same time.
Being the veteran of many family trips to the drive-in during the 1950s and ’60s, I knew that B-films film worked best in the venue and headed out to see the latest remake of “Godzilla,” explaining to my wife that monster films — rather than Ingmar Bergman films — were a staple of the venue’s golden years in the 1950s. She is still not convinced.
Upon entering more guard-like attendees direct cars to the proper screen. Dust rises as one follows the dirt road to the viewing area, and then a lane that leads to a parking or viewing space. Here one turns in and sets the front of the car on a small hill to look upwards toward the screen.
A quick glance around reveals that in addition to New Jersey there are a noticeable number of cars from Pennsylvania and New York. People obviously are interested in making the trip to the weekend-only showings.
While my wife and I decide to view the film from the car, many of our fellow viewers have come prepared for the great outdoors. Behind us there is a group of amiable guys with beards, sleeveless shirts, and tattoos settled in lawn chairs. On our right two boys sit on the grill of the car while a young mother sits behind the steering wheel and reads a Kindle. To our left is a family with an eager platoon of pajama-clad children crammed into a sedan. And between us and the screen are people sitting around on cars or in chairs right under the screen.
Radio technology long ago replaced the drive-in speakers that used to be available on a post that stood between two parking areas and placed on the driver’s side windows (and thanks to a forgetful driver would often end up being driven away). Signage appears on the screen that tells us that 88.1 FM is the magic number and once dialed a voice soon announces that one is listening to Delsea Drive-In Radio. “Welcome to New Jersey’s only drive-in,” the voice says.
Just as in the old days, the visuals and sound before the feature are filled with music, upbeat chatter, and advertisements, including an invitation to “visit our concession center, where one of the sandwiches is the biggest thing at the drive-in, except the screen.”
I decide to find out for myself and walk to the stand that proves to be both the physical heart of the grounds and the current center of focus of hundreds of patrons. I join a line that includes mixed ages and races, young adults with purple hair, women with baseball caps, an old man holding a child’s hand, and so on. The line stretches long under the darkening blue sky and into the low building that sports haphazard rows of solar panels behind it. It looks like a postcard from the future.
While inside waits a menu list that includes everything from Atkins diet fare to the Godzilla-sized sandwich, the line is not moving, despite the fact that DeLeonardis and his wife, Judy, are working the stands. I decide to abandon this mission and head back to the car.
Just as I hop into the vehicle, the radio voice announces, “Now let’s get this show going!” A hush falls over the grounds before being replaced by the ominous musical prelude that prepares us for the big name on the marquee. It could have also set the tone for the latecomers who drive about looking for a spot, and cause distractions with flashing red tail lights and headlight beams shining on the screen and into other cars.
While the film is difficult to follow — some crazy idea of Godzilla tracking down other monsters that feed on radioactivity — it becomes even more so when the radio frequency becomes distorted. The dialogue fades and hisses, corrects, but then returns to being distorted.
My wife and I by this point are busy talking about the old drive-ins that we visited while dating 35 years ago in the Trenton area — screens in Lawrence, Bordentown, Ewing, Morrisville, and Fairless Hills. Talk also includes weather conditions and drive-ins: hot and humid nights and mosquitoes are a challenge, as are winter nights when electric heaters came with the price of admission, windshield wipers cleared away the snow, and the car battery would die.
We also talk about our occasional visits to the very active drive-in theater outside Scranton, Pennsylvania, where we vacation. During one visit to the Circle Drive-In — which incidentally shares the name of the one that I used to attend when I was a kid — we took our son in 2003 on his first drive-in visit and saw the original ghostly “The Pirates of the Caribbean” on a foggy night and could not discern what was film or natural effect.
And, of course, there was a discussion on how bench-styled front seats — instead of bucket seats — had a few drive-in advantages: they could either accommodate more car passengers or allow couples to snuggle and steam up windows.
As the film moves ponderously along, my eyes rise above the screen, and I gaze at the stars and constellations glowing against the deep indigo sky and think of the times of drive-ins past, war vet dads taking the family to World War II dramas or silly — and now ironic — romantic comedies with pert blonde Doris Day and the closeted gay Rock Hudson. But now quick scene cuts on the screen, searing music, and the excited voices of the children in the next car brings me back to 2014 and makes me realize that the big moment is about to happen.
And when the fire-breathing headliner seizes a fellow monster, forces open its mouth, and blasts an incinerating flame down its gullet, a collective cheer rises from cars in a shared moment of goofy exuberance — and something positively New Jersey.
Delsea Drive-In Theater, 2203 Delsea Drive, Vineland. 856-696-0011 or www.delseadrive-in.com.
From the Princeton area: The Delsea Drive-In is approximately a 90-minute drive. Take I-295 south to NJ 55 south to exit 29, then continue on West Sherman Avenue to Delsea Drive.