The drive-in movie theater was the creation of Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., whose family owned and operated the R. M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingshead began experimenting with the idea in his backyard by hanging a screen between trees, placing a projector on the hood of his car, and putting a radio behind the screen. He patented his idea in 1932 and opened the world’s first drive-in movie theater on June 6, 1933.
The idea quickly caught on around the country. It is not known exactly when the first drive-in was built in Tennessee, but it was later than 1939. By 1948, 15 drive-ins operated in the state. Ten years later, 115 drive-ins operated in Tennessee. The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association estimates that 4,063 drive-ins were in operation around the country in 1958, while Don and Susan Sanders’s book The American Drive-In Movie Theatre asserts that there could have been as many as 5,000 locations nationwide that year.
The drive-in provided a unique and wholesome experience for young and old alike. Even Elvis Presley was reportedly a fan of drive-ins. According to the Sanders’s book, Presley spent his last night as a free man before reporting to the military in 1958 at Bellevue Drive-In, one of six drive-ins in the Memphis area. The movie was Sing, Boy, Sing, a Tommy Sands feature that chronicled the rise and fall of a rock-n-roll star.
However, drive-ins soon began to dwindle in number. There were a couple of reasons for this decline. Drive-ins were built along the edges of town to minimize light pollution. As towns expanded, the costs of owning such a huge chunk of property became too much for many proprietors. When multiplex movie theaters and cable television infiltrated the movie business in the 1970s and 1980s, many drive-ins were forced to either shut down or turn to B-movies and racy pictures to keep the screens lit. More than 1,000 drive-ins went dark around the country from 1978 through 1988, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
Foreclosures hit Tennessee’s drive-ins hard. Between 1972 and 1987, the number of Tennessee drive-ins shrunk from 98 to 19. Nashville, once home to Bordeaux Drive-In, Crescent Drive-In, Lebanon Road Drive-In, Colonial Twin Drive-In, Montague Drive-In, Warner Park Drive-In, Skyway Drive-In, and Bel-Air Drive-In, saw every one close. All six of Knoxville’s drive-ins–Chapman Highway Drive-In, Cinema Drive-In, Family Drive-In, Knoxville Drive-In, River Breeze Drive-In, and Twin Aire Drive-In–closed by 1990.
However, in the late 1990s, drive-ins experienced a resurgence. Blue Moon Theatres group bought, refurbished, and reopened Midtown Drive-In in Harriman, Parkway Drive-In in Maryville, and Sparta Drive-In in Sparta in 1995, 1999, and 2002 respectively. Moonglo Drive-In in Pulaski reopened in 2005 after being dormant for twenty years. In 2003, Floyd Entertainment Group cut the ribbon on Stardust Drive-In Theatre in Watertown, which was Tennessee’s first newly constructed drive-in movie theater in twenty years. Beth and Ray Rhoton followed suit by opening Montana Drive-In, located in Estill Springs, in 2004. The Higgins family unveiled Higgins Moonlite Drive-In in Woodbury in 2005.
Some relics from yesteryear remain. Lewisburg’s Hi-Way 50 Drive-In, which has shown movies since 1946, is the state’s oldest continuously operated drive-in. This theater is notable for having its movies project onto a screen tower. Elizabethtown’s Stateline Drive-In has been in operation since 1947, while the screen at the nearby Twin City Drive-In in Bristol has operated since 1949. Macon Drive-In in Lafayette, Dunlap Drive-In in Dunlap, and Pink Cadillac Drive-In in Centerville all remain from 1950. Memphis’s Summer Avenue Drive-In, which lit up in 1966, is the state’s largest. Its four screens can hold up to two thousand cars, although one of the screens is currently under reconstruction after being damaged by fire in 2007.
Seventeen drive-ins operate in Tennessee today. The rate of attrition in Tennessee from the drive-in glory days was not as steep as it was elsewhere. While drive-ins will never become as numerous as they were in the 1950s, these new theater owners have made enough updates and tweaks to ensure future generations will continue enjoying the drive-in experience.