The drive-in movie theater, which is enjoying a resurgence amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, did not originate in Los Angeles.
That honor goes to Camden, New Jersey, where the world’s first opened June 6, 1933 — the patented brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, son of an auto parts dealer. But L.A. was quick to pick up on the trend, and on Sept. 9, 1934, what was originally known simply as “Drive-In Theatre” (it was renamed Pico Drive-In Theatre in 1943) opened its gates at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards, where a bean field previously stood and where the Westside Pavilion shopping mall now stands.
Designed by architect Clifford Balch (who created several landmark theaters including the El Rey), it was the country’s fourth such “ozoner,” as drive-ins were colloquially referred to. The first film to screen there was the 1934 Fox hit Handy Andy (best remembered for a scene in which star Will Rogers dances at a costume ball dressed as Tarzan). Admission was 35 cents a car (which amounts to $7 in 2020) — not a bad deal for a first-run picture. The screen was 60 feet wide by 40 feet high and made of wood, covered in canvas and painted a flat white. Capacity was 487 cars, each spaced on a grid about 3 feet apart. The staff numbered about 30, several of whom just ran around cleaning windshields.
The problem, however, was the sound. Windowmounted speakers with volume control had not yet been invented; those would be introduced by RCA in 1941. Instead, the Pico installed one giant loudspeaker above the screen and blasted it. The resultant cacophony drove neighbors insane, and they soon pressured the L.A. City Council to introduce an ordinance on Jan. 31, 1935, making it a misdemeanor to operate a sound-amplifying system audible more than 50 feet from a venue’s property line.
That didn’t sit well with Guy Douthwaite, owner of the Pico Drive-In, who defied the law and challenged its constitutionality in court. On June 4, 1935, a judge found him guilty of violating the ordinance and sentenced him to a $250 fine (about $5,000 today) plus a 12-month suspended sentence.
Douthwaite died in December 1936 of a heart attack at age 50. The Pico screened its final double- bill on Oct. 1, 1944, with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and James Mason in Candlelight in Algeria. It was demolished in 1947.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.