Drive-in is country's last showing 35 mm films every weekend
Lehighton, Pa. This summer is the Mahoning's 70th season and the 86th birthday of drive-in movies.
By Christina Tatu, The (Allentown) Morning Call
As cars roll into the Mahoning Drive-In Theater and wait for the sun to go down, Jeff Mattox loads the first reel of 35 mm film onto a Simplex E7 projector.
“Years ago, this was the way it was done," Mattox said, as he pointed out the different parts of the 70-year-old twin projectors that still run side-by-side in the projection room.
Since the movie industry started transitioning to digital cinema technology in 2012, The Mahoning, a drive-in that exclusively shows 35 mm film, is the last of its kind.
The movies shown on any given weekend might be relatively new (this night's opening feature was 1992's “Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). But patrons still get a taste of what it was like when the theater opened outside of Lehighton in April 1949 and moviegoers sang along to the Mahoning's premier feature, the musical “April Showers."
“Carbon County's big, modern drive-in theater has just been completed in the Mahoning Valley," said an April 18, 1949, article in The Morning Call.
It advertised individual speakers for each auto “that will bring sound directly into the car," and a switch on the speaker that could be used to summon a waitress from the snack bar.
The speakers mounted on individual poles were gone by the time Mattox started working at the theater in 2001. Now moviegoers tune in with their radios.
Mattox has worked as the theater's film projectionist off and on for 18 years, and bought the business in 2014.
At that time, the drive-in was still showing the first-run movies that all the cineplexes were getting. But Mattox knew that would end soon.
“My production agent told me they weren't going to make film anymore," Mattox said.
With a screen that's 110-feet-across and a lot that holds up to 1,000 cars, the Mahoning would have needed a digital system costing $100,000.
“I couldn't afford that, and I knew it," Mattox said. “So, I had a decision to make: Either in a couple years I can shut it down and that will be it, or what will be available on film? I said, `You know what? I'm going to turn it into a museum, but an operating museum."'
Mattox decided to “go retro," showing only the classics or the obscure still available on 35 mm — “The Wizard of Oz" to kick off the season and "Night of the Creeps" or “Dead and Buried" for Memorial Day weekend's “Zombiefest."
Once Mattox made the decision to stick with 35 mm, something unexpected happened: Matt McClanahan stumbled upon the lot.
McClanahan, a Temple University film student at the time, was driving back from Luzerene County where he was working on a documentary in 2014, when construction forced him off the Turnpike and onto the back roads of Carbon County.
“I saw this marquee and my first instinct was, `Wow, an abandoned drive-in theater,"' said McClanahan, who decided to follow the sign down Seneca Road, where the Mahoning's colossal screen suddenly comes into view above the treetops.
Call it kismet, but Mattox happened to be at the theater that afternoon. McClanahan told him about his love of film and about his friend Virgil Cardamone, also a film student at Temple, who had dreamed of running a drive-in theater since he was 13 years old.
Today, the three film buffs are business partners and Mattox, 60, plans to one day leave the theater to McClanahan and Cardamone.
Under their direction, and with the help of many dedicated volunteers, the hidden drive-in off of Route 443 in Mahoning Township has thrived, creating a niche for fans that goes beyond the film.
The Mahoning is as much about the social experience as it is about the movie. Every weekend has a theme and guests are invited to dress up like their favorite movie characters and join the party inside the concession stand, which JT Mills, a volunteer from Clarks Summit, usually decorates to look like the backdrop of that weekend's film.
During “Vampyrty Weekend" Mills brought along his own 35 mm copy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that he won in an E-bay auction, and the original guitar neck turned vampire-slaying stake that was a prop in the 1992 Joss Whedon film.
“It's not just about the films. It's about putting on a show," he said. “You can see a movie anywhere, but where else do you get to be part of the show?"
It's not unusual to see a look-alike Buffy Anne Summers eating popcorn at The Mahoning's concession stand, or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle posing for photos. Horror shows — the theater's favorite genre — bring out the neighborhood Frankensteins, Freddy Kruegers and Scream freaks.
The management plays up the kitsch, with themed events like “Godzilla Palooza," and “Bite Night," where one of the featured films was “Jurassic Park" and costumed T. Rex trolled the lot. When the movies end, the tents go up, as the drive-in welcomes campers to stay overnight.
“This is one-of-a-kind. To do this all season long is crazy, and the fact that we do it speaks volumes about our fandom," McClanahan said as he worked the ticket booth on a recent Friday night, collecting $10 a person.
Since going all retro, the Mahoning went from “crippling debt" to being profitable, he said.
The Mahoning's popularity was also bolstered by the documentary “At The Drive-In," shot by director Alexander Monelli during the 2016-17 seasons and released nationally on DVD this April.
The retro plan hit a big snag early on, though, when Mattox's booking agent said he had no interest in procuring such movies. Cardamone, who was then charged with securing the reels, ran up against the same obstacle with studios.
“They said, `Good luck, you'll be out of business in a year," Cardamone recalled.
But he managed to persuade some studios and collectors to open their vaults. He also started working with Exhumed Films in Philadelphia to bring the B-rated horror movies the Mahoning has become known for screening.
“I think we proved the power of the drive-in hasn't gone anywhere," Cardamone said.
From feast to famine
This summer is the Mahoning's 70th season and the 86th birthday of drive-in movies.
The first theater was opened in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933, by Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., according to the book “Cinema Under the Stars, America's Love Affair With The Drive-In Movie Theater," by Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett.
Drive-ins were a perfect fit for America's car culture and its post-World War II flight to the suburbs, where large lots of affordable land could accommodate the burgeoning market.
At the height of the industry in 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins across the country, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owner's Association. Increasing land values, which made it more profitable to convert outdoor theaters into commercial development, sent that number plummeting in the 1980s.
People in the Lehigh Valley never had to go far to find a drive-in. While the Starlite in Palmer Township and its sister theater, the Bethlehem Drive-In in Bethlehem Township were among those that didn't survive, the area still has Becky's Drive-In in Berlinsville and Shankweiler's Drive-In in North Whitehall Township. They both went digital and show first-run movies.
Drive-in theaters now are a rarity, with only 317 remaining in the country, 26 of which are in Pennsylvania, according to the association.
Shankweiler's, the oldest continuously operating drive-in, has been listed for sale since Jan. 2018, for $1.1 million. The four-acre property is zoned commercial, but owner Paul Geissinger said he won't sell unless the new owner continues operating the drive-in.
In 2013, Geissinger spent $120,000 to convert the single screen, 280-car theater to digital.
“We really gave it a lot of thought before putting that kind of money into a seasonal business. We did it for the customers and because we enjoy it. Too many times I've stood outside and saw a packed house full of families," said Geissinger, who started working at Shankweiler's in 1971 before buying the business with his wife, Susan, in 1984.
The Mahoning is the only drive-in left in the country still showing 35 mm films every weekend, said John Vincent, association president.
It's what Mattox was handling when he learned to operate a projector in 1976 in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was stationed in the Air Force and running the base's theater.
Back home, he continued that work as a projectionist at the Victoria Theatre in Shamokin, which was modeled after a European opera house. After closing in the early 1990s, the theater quickly fell into disrepair and was eventually bulldozed for a drug store.
Disheartened after the Victoria closed, Mattox wasn't sure if he'd return to the industry.
For his day job, Mattox, who lives in Kutztown, has worked at WHOL radio in Allentown since 1980. When a friend asked if he'd be interested in being a projectionist at the Mahoning 18 years ago, Mattox wasn't sure.
But once he set foot on the lot and saw the giant screen, he was flooded with childhood memories of visiting Lehigh Valley drive-ins, where he watched the movies from the back of his parents' car until he and his brother could no longer resist the urge to fall asleep.
“We are really holding onto a tradition here," Mattox said on a recent evening in the projection booth.
You might say he's holding on by a thread. It's been more than 50 years since they stopped making the projectors the Mahoning uses, though Mattox says he's got a guy who still sells the parts. As many a movie-goer knows, film can snap on a reel or burn, cutting a movie short. But that's all part of the Mahoning's mystique. And Mattox, the veteran projectionist, can usually fend off a problem before it happens.
His ear can pick up the click of a spliced piece of film as it makes its way through the reel. And he's ready for the alarm that chimes when there's only one minute of film remaining and he has to use a foot pedal to switch between projectors. With only 20 minutes of film on each reel, he switches reels at least a dozen times during a double feature. With digital, the film is downloaded from the studio and the operator “presses play."
“Any idiot can do it," Mattox says bluntly.
Indeed, film projection is becoming a lost art. Many projectors ended up in the junk pile as theaters died in the advent of the digital age.
Vincent, from the association, estimates the number of drive-in theaters has dropped by 8 percent since 2012, when digital became the standard.
But film has been around since 1890, so there are plenty of reels in archives across the country.
“The benefit of digital is that the film experience is always the same. There are no scratches, dust or breaks in the film," said, Dennis Doros, president of the Los Angeles-based Association of Moving Image Archivists. “Everyone remembers reels starting out of focus and yelling up to the projectionist, or the sound being negligible."
Just as vinyl lovers listen for the swishes that give an album character, Doros said film aficionados appreciate the flaws that make each viewing experience unique.
The last first-run feature shown at The Mahoning Drive-In was the first “Guardians of the Galaxy" in 2014.
“I thought, `Everyone has `Guardians of the Galaxy,' Why are they going to go to a drive-in in the middle of summer when they can go to an air conditioned cineplex?"' Mattox recalled.
“Jurassic Park" and “Jaws" was the first retro double feature Mattox showed later that summer.
When McClanahan and Cardamone came along, Mattox was exhausted from running the business by himself and thankful for the help. But he couldn't pay them. So the deal was they could work with him for free, learn what he knew and they would figure out the rest later.
There was one thing the younger men knew much better than Mattox did — social media, and how to use it to promote the Mahoning.
Through Facebook and Twitter word spread. And as the cars rolled in, McClanahan and Cardamone assured Mattox there is an audience for the reels shown at the Mahoning. Before long, a group of dedicated “super fans" emerged, many of whom are regular volunteers at the drive-in.
Nearly every weekend Mark Nelson makes the six-hour drive from Kenne, New Hampshire, to volunteer running the theater's concession stand. On Friday afternoons, he goes straight from his job as the director of a public access TV station to Lehighton, arriving just before that night's feature. He sleeps in the snack bar on Friday and Saturday nights before driving back to New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon.
“Initially it was about the movies, but now it's really about the people," Nelson said. “You probably hear that from a lot of people, that this is a place where you can be you."
The Mahoning is like a mini-convention where movie fans convene and share their love of cinema, said Nelson, who has met people there from California and Canada.
While some fans come from far and wide, the theater banks on a steady stream of customers from the Coal Region, Poconos and Lehigh Valley. The LV Reapers, a club for Lehigh Valley-area horror fans, meets regularly at the drive-in.
“My mom was a big horror fan. I like being able to see the movies the same way she saw them," said Reapers member Andrew Kyriakopoulos, whose favorite film titles at the Mahoning include “Phantasm," and “Mark of the Devil Part II."
On any given fair-weathered Friday, up to 800 cars fill the Mahoning. To pull in is to punch a hole in time. The screen is aglow, illuminating the hundreds of people watching from the comfort of their cars, or on blankets and chairs in the warm summer air.
As long as Mattox can keep the projectors running, the movie reels will keep rolling at the Mahoning.
“For at least another couple generations this place is going to stay," he said. “And people are just going to be amazed."
If you go
What: The Mahoning Drive-In Theater
Where: 635 Seneca Road, Lehighton (Mahoning Township, Carbon County)
When: Weekends from April to September
Cost: $10 per person, $7 for children, $10 for an overnight pass
Information: At mahoningdit.com or on the theater's Facebook page.