Sunday, July 26, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Cape's Drive-Ins

     The drive-in movie theater was at one time a staple of American life. Being able to enjoy a film on a large outdoor screen from the luxury of the inside of your car was a cherished memory for so many over several decades. Even though in 2020 there are only approximately 321 remaining there are still some classic drive-in theaters left in the country. On Cape Cod for so long the Wellfleet Drive-In was the last remaining vestige of a bygone era. However that changed in the summer of 2020 when the former Yarmouth Drive-In was brought back to life more than three decades after initially closing.

     The story of the drive-in is long and storied and intertwined with the Cape. Though there were drive-ins of a sort as far back as the 1910’s the first true, patented drive-in theater debuted on June 6, 1933. The first proper drive-in theater was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead. He took the existing idea of watching silent films outdoors on screens and added the ability for the wildly popular automobile to become a part of it. Hollingshead opened his creation in Camden, New Jersey with a showing of the British comedy Wives Beware. Tickets cost 25 cents per person and also 25 cents per vehicle. The Camden Drive-In had a capacity of 400 cars and 600 people attended that first night’s showing.

The screen at the Camden Drive-In (Cinema

     His investment of $30,000 ($595,000 in 2020) spawned a new industry that would sweep the nation. Though primitive in the beginning, including not having the individual speakers for cars, the drive-in slowly began to catch on. In January 1938 plans were discussed for a potential drive-in near the Barnstable Airport in Hyannis. These discussions were brief as the potential of such an attraction was not seen as being an asset to the Cape.

     By the end of the 1930’s there were 18 drive-ins located in America. These included four in Massachusetts in Weymouth, Lynn, Shrewsbury, and Methuen. In 1948 that number had leaped to 820 total theaters. It was around this time that the drive-in was finally seen as a worthwhile investment for Cape Cod.

     In May 1949 building contractor Louis Segrini of Mansfield, Massachusetts was granted a permit to build the first drive-in on Cape Cod. This drive-in would be far more than a place to watch movies in your car though. The 70 acre plot located on Hokum Rock Road in Dennis, near Rt. 134, was at the time the largest drive-in in New England. It had a capacity of 1,000 cars and would also become the first fly-in theater. This distinction came from the fact that small airplanes and helicopters could land on a strip near the back end of the grounds and taxi their way to spots to watch the movies from inside the plane. In addition to being the largest theater and a fly-in theater the Dennis Drive-In included a dance pavilion, bottle warming service for young mothers, refreshment stands, and even 20 nearby cottages to rent.

The Dennis Drive-In, 1949 (Cinema

     Opening night was Saturday July 16, 1949. The theater played the color film Barkleys of Broadway featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was a near sellout close to 1,000 cars. Rather than rest on his laurels Segrini parlayed the success of the Dennis Drive-In to a second theater planned for near the Mashpee Rotary in 1950. These plans never materialized. Cape Cod had to wait six years for a second drive-in to open.

     It was in the 1950’s that the drive-in hit its apex as an entertainment attraction. This was the case on Cape Cod as well. Herman Rifkin opened the Cod Drive-In in the Teaticket section of Falmouth in 1955. This was followed quickly by the Hyannis Drive-In on Rt. 132. The Yarmouth Drive-In on Rt. 28 followed in 1956 and finally the Wellfleet Drive-In was built on Rt. 6 in 1957. This brought the total to five drive-ins on Cape Cod. In 1958 the total number of theaters in the United States hit its high of 4,063.
The drive-in had continued success throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. However the tide slowly began to turn. An increase in land values, the advent of VCR’s, and the fact that drive-in shows had to begin late with summer sunset times started to eat into business. By 1980 there were just over 2,000 drive-ins left. The 1980’s saw the virtual end of the industry on Cape Cod.

     It began in 1980 when the Cod Drive-In closed. The land just off of Rt. 28 was owned for years by the Augusta Family who own the abutting Falmouth Lumber. In the spring of 2003 a 23.7-acre parcel of the former drive-in land was purchased by the Town of Falmouth. As of 2020 though nothing has been done with that property.

     Next to close was the Dennis Drive-In in 1984. The property was to be turned into a housing subdivision however as of 2020 much of the property remains overgrown. Upon walking over the former grounds one can find chunks of asphalt, concrete, former speaker stands, and wire littered about.

The Wellfleet Drive-In, for decades the last one standing until 2020. (Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism)

     The Yarmouth Drive-In initially closed in 1985. Throughout the years many ideas were bandied about as to what should become of the 22-acre site. A river walk consisting of trails and boardwalks leading along Parker’s River out to Seagull Beach had potential yet never materialized. In July 2020 it was resurrected by Innovation Arts & Entertainment. The new Yarmouth Drive-In has been updated for the 21st century with bright LED screens making daytime movies possible.

     In 1987 the Hyannis Drive-In became the fourth to close on the Cape in seven years. Though religious services took place on the grounds for a short time afterwards the property would eventually become home to Stop & Shop. It was also in 1987 where the total number of drive-ins dipped below 1,000 nationwide.

     The Wellfleet Drive-In for more than thirty years stood tall as the last beacon of a bygone era. It became a popular summer destination for those wishing for a slice of 1950’s nostalgia in a 21st century world. As of 2020 it remains a perfect family night out during the summer.

     The drive-in theatre for a time was the place to see new movies. It became as much a part of pop culture of a bygone generation as the movies themselves did. Though their numbers massively dwindled as the decades passed the drive-in is not finished yet. In a time where social distancing is the new normal there is a potential for a comeback of some of these beloved old school icons.

    So what became of Richard Hollingshead’s original Camden Drive-In? Partially due to high movie rental costs and lower than expected crowds Hollingshead sold his theater less than three years after opening it to a man who ‘moved’ the business to Union, New Jersey. It did not reopen. The final insult came when Hollingshead’s company was sued in 1950 and lost his patent on some of the designs of the drive-in, the large rush of new theaters came shortly thereafter.

My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

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