Last marquee standing: Delsea Drive-In is only theater of its kind in New Jersey

delsea drive-in

The marquee of The Delsea Drive-In Movie Theatre in Vineland.

You have to admit, it was a genius idea.

Only 20 years removed from the start of automobile mass production in 1913, and with movie-going the most popular form of entertainment, Richard Milton Hollingshead Jr. had a brainstorm.

The heir to Whiz Auto Products Company in Camden envisioned cashing in on the country’s new car culture and its passion for cinema by offering Americans a more comfortable way to view a film: from the privacy of their own vehicle, facing an outdoor screen, with state-of-the-art “directional sound,” created by RCA.

In the May 17, 1933, edition of the Courier-Post, Hollingshed explained the allure of his new patented invention, the drive-in movie theater:

“In the Drive-In theatre one may smoke without offending others. People may chat or even partake of refreshments brought to their cars without disturbing those who prefer silence. The Drive-In theatre idea virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theatre box.”

Less than a month later, on June 6, The Automobile Movie Theatre, the country’s first drive-in, opened along Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken. Ninety-one years later, after peaking at 5,000 drive-ins across the country during the 1960s, there are about 300 left, according to The New York Film Academy.

But here in Jersey, once the home of 46 drive-ins, we’re down to just one: The Delsea Drive-in Movie Theatre on South Delsea Drive in Vineland.

The historic venue, which began operation in 1949, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, marking the year John and Jude DeLeonardis reopened it in 2004, after it had lain dormant since 1987.

So, yes, the DeLeonardises are celebrating — mostly that they’ve made it this far in an unforgiving industry with a razor-thin profit margin. They are also thankful that the pandemic years are behind them — years when they had to fight with the state to remain open, even though the drive-in is an outdoor facility. Nothing has been easy.

A recent weekend at the Delsea Drive-In featured “The Garfield Movie,” “If,” “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” and “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.”

“We’re very tired,” says Jude, following a June weekend that should have put a smile on her face. The weather was great and lots of folks showed up to see “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” and “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” on the main screen and “The Garfield Movie” and “If” on the smaller screen.

They had 200 cars for the first time in two years, but the unexpected bump in attendance (475 people) overwhelmed a concession stand that has fewer workers these days because the crowds have been smaller.

“Despite that, I think we did a heck of a job turning out the food,” she says. “It’s high-quality, and people really like our food.”

Indeed, Delsea’s menu far outpaces the underwhelming lineup of popcorn, burgers and fries sold at drive-ins back in the ‘60s. Here, edamame with salt, carrots with hummus, Dr. Praeger’s veggie burger and chicken noodle soup live happily with cheesesteaks, pizza, Wing Dings and soft-serve on the snack bar’s extensive list of offerings, both savory and sweet.

And Jude wears the fryer burns up and down her arms as proof of her dedication to keeping patrons well-fed. In fact, grill master may be the most important of her many jobs at the drive-in because the concession stand is what keeps the movies rolling.

It’s serious business. All outside food and beverages are prohibited. If you want to bring in your own refreshments, you must buy a $20-per-vehicle food permit. Patrons buying food at the snack bar or purchasing permits to bring in their own make all the difference between staying open and closing for good, says Jude, who insists a night at the drive-in is still a bargain and will cost less than any other family entertainment.

With tickets priced at $12.50, she estimates that for about $100 a family of four can enjoy a full night of entertainment, which includes two movies and food for everyone. You’ll be there from when the box office opens around 7 p.m. until after midnight. “That’s a deal to me,” she says.

While Jude mans the snack bar, John runs the projector and patrols the field to make sure everything is running smoothly. Not an easy task.

“Because it’s outside, people think, ‘I’m free to do whatever I want. So I can smoke. I can keep my car lights on. I can take up two spaces and put my lawn chairs in the second space,’ ” says Jude. “Well, just because it’s outside, there have to be rules because everybody needs to have an equal chance at having a great evening.”

It may also be an advantage that John’s day job is working as a pediatrician at Complete Care Health Network in Bridgeton. Which means that even though the average movie crowd is mostly college-age up to mid-40s, he is well equipped to handle occasional juvenile behavior.

“My husband enjoys what he does,” says Jude. “He works four days a week as a doctor, but he’s also at the drive-in seven days a week, even though we’re open only three days. He runs the projectors. He fixes everything. I’m the straight guy. I’m looking at the numbers. I’m booking the films and looking at what’s coming. My husband’s enjoying the show, talking to people, and I’m behind the curtain doing what has to be done to make sure we can open tomorrow.”

Most days, the drive-in’s future is uncertain.

“People are using more discretion as to whether they’re going to come out and do things and where they’re going to spend their money,” says Jude. “But if you’re going to do something, you’re not going to beat the drive-in for a night. Restaurants, bowling, the boardwalk, an amusement park — you’ll spend a fortune.”

There is also the pressure of knowing revenue from the outdoor movie season has to cover the late winter dormant months when there is zero income. “Just because you’re closed doesn’t mean you don’t have bills coming in. Even when we’re closed, we’re both working on the drive-in.”

One project the couple has been focusing on is the refurbishment of the drive-in’s marquee, which dates back to its 1949 opening. The original lights no longer work, so it is illuminated by a spotlight. “We’re looking into LED lighting,” says Jude. “But we’re having a hard time getting quotes for the work. I guess it’s a big job and no one wants to commit to a figure.”

Still, they are hoping to secure a state economic development grant to redo the classic entrance sign.

The good news, though, is that the Delsea Drive-in has managed to outdistance old Mr. Hollingshead’s record for operation.

An advertisement for The Automobile Movie Theatre in Pennsauken.

The Automobile Movie Theatre closed after just 14 months, unable to sustain a profit. How much longer can the DeLeonardises hang in at the Delsea?

“Wishful thinking? After this season, I’m done,” Jude jokes, knowing it’s far from the truth. That’s because John has absolutely no intention of walking away from the business. “My husband loves to work the drive-in. He’ll do it until he dies.”

When Jude is honest with herself and thinks about what would be lost if they packed it all in, she turns sentimental and nostalgic.

“I understand that people like to stay home and watch streaming. But they’re losing the grandeur of the genre. It’s not there in your home like it is when you go out to the theater. The big screen is special. Yes, people have 85-inch TVs. I get it. But we’re talking a 120-foot screen!

“The drive-in makes a memory. You don’t make a memory when go to the indoor theater. Here, the kids can come in their pajamas. They can sit in the back of the SUV with the hatch up, or on blankets or lawn chairs. It’s something they’ll remember.”

Jude also believes they are providing a public service to the community. “I would feel bad if we sold it and it was torn down because it would be taking something away from the community — all the people who come to us. That’s why I haven’t made a phone call to a business broker.”

And when Jude really wants to lay a heavy guilt trip on herself about entertaining the idea of walking away, she will think back to one particular night in 2013 when “We’re the Millers,” with Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston, was playing on the main screen.

“It’s one of the best nights I remember, as far as getting a good vibe. I’m usually in the grill room all night and don’t even get to go out and see the movies. But this night I had to leave the snack bar to get something. It was really nice weather and everyone was sitting outside and all I could hear was a whole field full of people giggling and laughing.

“It was one of the warmest sensations I’ve ever felt. So good. I tucked that feeling in my pocket.”

And every once in a while she reaches in to remind herself why she’s still there.

For more on The Delsea Drive-In Movie Theatre, visit


Since launching in September 2014,, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter