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Wall Township, New Jersey: World's First Fly-in Movie Theater
by Michael Maltsev
Fly-In Movies ... Interesting Idea, But Did It Fly?
Ed Brown Jr., a former Navy pilot, opens the first drive-in, fly-in movie theater. There's room for 500 cars and 25 small planes.
The drive-in movie theater itself was still something of a novelty when Brown hit on the idea in 1948 of accommodating moviegoers arriving by private plane, another relatively new phenomenon in American life. He opened his fly-in theater on some land near Wall Township, New Jersey, which included an adjoining airfield. Planes would land at the field, then taxi over to the theater and fan out behind the cars. When the evening's feature ended, a jeep was provided to tow the planes back to the airfield.
Like conventional drive-ins, Brown's fly-in included a concession stand (where the real money was made), restrooms and plenty of privacy for, umm, watching the movie.
Brown's theater was a novelty in a larger industry that was already enjoying a growth spurt. The first drive-in theater opened in June 1933, also in New Jersey, and by 1948 there were 820 of them nationwide. The real boom came in the '50s, though, and by 1958 the number of theaters nationwide had surpassed 4,000. It was all downhill after that, though, with a steady decline during the 1960s and '70s. By the end of the 1980's, the number of drive-in theaters operating in the United States had dropped to under 1,000. The number stands at around 375 today.
Even during the drive-in's heyday, though, the fly-in idea never really took off. It was necessarily limited, owing both to the scarcity of available land and the fact that relatively few people owned their own planes. Still, there were other fly-in, drive-in theaters around. In fact, Brown opened a second one Fly-in Drive-In #2 on New Jersey Route 72 in Manahawkin. He operated a conventional drive-in theater, too, making him something of a drive-in mogul.
There are no drive-in moguls today. The theaters that remain exist either in remote areas or as nostalgic reminders of simpler times. In order to scoop up as much money as possible, the operators of most surviving drive-ins make the space available during daylight hours for other uses, notably flea markets.
The 2000s have seen the modest rise of so-called guerrilla drive-ins, utilizing updated technology including LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters to set up theaters in vacant parking lots and other open spaces. But the drive-in theater of yore with its greasy food, lousy sound quality and cute, squealing girls in angora sweaters continues its long, slow fade into the mists of time.