My favorite artifact in America at Play, an exhibit that opened on The Strong’s second floor in December 2016, isn’t the oldest, the biggest, or the showiest. But it’s one that transports me to another place and time. Which artifact has such magical powers? It’s the Remco Movieland Drive-In Theater play set from 1959. Today, drive-in movie theaters are almost unheard of, but the few that remain are considered a treasure. However, they weren’t always rare and exceptional.
In the 1960s, drive-in theaters occupied a significant part of the landscape of almost every suburb surrounding Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. The concept had made its debut decades earlier—way back in 1933—when Richard Hollingshead opened his Park-In Theater in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingshead patented the concept and promoted his theater’s shows as cost-effective entertainment for the whole family since the price was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with a maximum fee of $1. When Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949, other entrepreneurs got into the business and drive-ins proliferated. At their peak in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, drive-ins numbered about 4,000 coast-to-coast.