June 27, 2013

America’s Oldest Drive-in Movie Theater Still Draws a Crowd

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Shankweiler's in Orefield, Pennsylvania is the oldest drive-in theatre in the country.

It was only supposed to be a temporary gig. Paul Geissinger, a recent high school graduate, agreed to run the projection booth at Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre in Orefield, Pa., for just a couple weeks until the theater’s new owner could find a permanent employee.

Forty-two years later, Geissinger is still there -- except now, he owns the place.

“I remember, I told [the owner] no, I’m not interested in working at a drive-in,” says Geissinger, who, at the time, was enrolled in electronics school. “But I said, fine, I’ll give you two weekends while you find someone else. But after two weeks, he couldn’t find anyone, so I gave him three weeks. Then another week. And I’m still there.”

This April, Geissinger opened up the beloved Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre, the oldest drive-in theater in the country, for its 80th season.

Movie-lover Wilson Shankweiler opened the drive-in -- the first such theater in the state of Pennsylvania -- in April 1934, a year after the first drive-in theater in the country opened in Camden, N.J.

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Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre, a family-owned operation, opened on April 15, 1934. Nearly 300 cars can fit inside the drive-in theater.

For years, people parked their cars on the four-acre lot, passing their summer evenings in the glow of the movie screen.

But in 1955, Hurricane Diane ravaged the East Coast, all but decimating Shankweiler’s. The projection booth was leveled, as was the shadow box screen.

“Basically everything was destroyed, except for the for the entrance archway,” Geissinger says.

It took some convincing, but Wilson Shankweiler, who, by then, was “getting up there in age,” Geissinger says, agreed to rebuild the drive-in and use the opportunity to modernize it. A new CinemaScope screen was added and a new concession stand, box office, and projection booth were built. Shankweiler’s was, once again, back up and running.

But by the time Geissinger joined the theater’s staff in 1971, the theater had again fallen to disrepair.

“I just about had a heart attack [when I walked into the projection room],” he remembers. “It was a disaster. A lot of things were just hanging on by a thread.”

He spent the next several years fixing the equipment, calling on the skills he picked up working in his high school’s audiovisual department.

Finally, in 1984, he and his wife, Susan, were presented with the opportunity to buy the theater, and they took the plunge.

“It was real rough at first,” he says. “Some nights, there were more employees than patrons.”

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Currently, Shankweiler's Drive-in Theater is showing a double-feature of Monster's University and Man of Steel, which Paul Geissinger said drew a large crowd that packed the lot from "fence to fence."

The Geissingers were competing with televisions, VCRs, and, eventually, huge multiplex theaters for customers. But throughout the last three decades, they have slowly been making upgrades to the space, installing the latest audiovisual technology and redoing the floors and heating and cooling systems. They recently celebrated the addition of new digital projection and sound equipment.

Thanks to their efforts, Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre has once more become a popular hangout for Pennsylvanians of all ages during the summer months.

“This past Saturday, we had cars packed in here from fence to fence,” he says.

The Geissinger’s customers are frequently thanking them for putting the money and effort into keeping the theater running. The couple knows the theater would never have survived without the dedication and determination of its previous owners, and they are set on following suit.

“That’s basically what Susan and I are: preservationists,” he says. “We’re committed to preserving America’s oldest drive-in.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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