Written By: Ben Cosgrove

A New Jersey auto-parts store manager named Richard Hollingshead Jr. came up with the idea for a drive-in theater. He received a patent for it on May 16, 1933 and, along with three other investors, cut the ribbon on the world’s first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933. At the height of their popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, there were roughly 4,000 drive-in theaters across the U.S., but in recent times, the number dropped to a tenth of that.

During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, drive-ins began to see a resurgence. Walmart has converted 160 of its parking lots into drive-ins, and many other locations have being improvised in open spaces around the country. The phenomenon is tailor-made for this difficult summer. At drive-ins, moviegoers can be socially distant in their cars while having a communal experience and enjoying the action on the big screen.

Here, LIFE.com presents images of drive-ins in their original heyday. 

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon starred in Beach Blanket Bingo, shown at a drive-in movie theater in Florida, 1965.

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon starred in Beach Blanket Bingo, shown at a drive-in movie theater in Florida, 1965.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Customers arriving by car at a "fly-in drive-in" theater, New Jersey, 1949.

Fly-In-Drive-In Theater, New Jersey, 1949

Martha Holmes/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aerial view of a "fly-in drive-in theater," with plane in parking lot, 1949.

A plane settled in the parking lot of this drive-in that also accommodated fly-ins, 1949.

Martha Holmes/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Usher, drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

An usher guided a guest at a San Francisco drive-in, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Los Angeles, 1949.

Drive-in theater, Los Angeles, 1949.

J. R. Eyerman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Drive-in theater, Chicago, 1951.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Gilmore Island, Los Angeles, 1949.

Gilmore Island, Los Angeles, 1949.

Loomis Dean/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Los Angeles, 1949.

Drive-in theater, Los Angeles, 1949.

J. R. Eyerman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, Connecticut, 1955.

Drive-in theater, Connecticut, 1955.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

As a publicity stunt Les Davis (on top of the screen) lives in a tent on top of a drive-in movie screen in 1955 Connecticut.

As a publicity stunt Les Davis (on top of the screen) lived in a tent on top of a drive-in movie screen in Connecticut, 1955.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Rancho Drive-in Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Rancho Drive-in Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A Joel McCrea movie at the Rancho Drive-in Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

A Joel McCrea movie at the Rancho Drive-in Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Kids enjoy one of the four double-seated glider swings in the mini-playground at the Rancho Drive-In Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Kids enjoyed one of the four double-seated glider swings in the mini-playground at the Rancho Drive-In Theater, San Francisco, 1948.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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