It’s Day 361 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. On another cold, sunny day, it took barely 20 minutes to drive the short distance from Becky’s Drive-In just east of Walnutport PA to Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Orefield PA.
Shankweiler’s is the oldest drive-in still in operation, and it was probably just the second drive-in theater to open, period. Kerry Segrave’s book Drive-In Theaters lists the opening date as April 15, 1934, echoed on the drive-in’s own excellent history page, but calls the date “questionable”. If it’s accurate, Shankweiler’s opening comes before the next known drive-in, a very short-lived enterprise in Galveston TX.
Its humble beginnings are a big reason why it’s hard to independently fix the date. Wilson Shankweiler was a movie buff who saw the original Camden NJ drive-in while on vacation in 1933. As Segrave writes, “Behind the hotel he owned in Orefield was a deserted (biplane) landing strip, which Shankweiler converted to a makeshift drive-in.” (The hotel building, still there, was converted to a funeral home in 2010.) “The first screen consisted of two poles and a sheet. A 16-mm projector sat on a table in the middle of the landing strip, while audio was provided by one large horn speaker down front.” Patrons could also walk in and sit on benches near the screen.
The company of drive-in inventor Richard Hollingshead later sued Shankweiler’s for patent infringement but lost. When locals instituted an amusement tax, the drive-in tried to dodge it by advertising free movies with a parking fee of 50 cents a car.
The first external reference to the drive-in that I could find in The Morning Call of nearby Allentown was on May 22, 1937 when an ad for Shankweiler’s restaurant added “Shankweilers’s Open Air Theatre Now Open” (for the season, I presume?) “Talkie Shows Every Sun., Wed. & Fri. Evenings”.
From there, Shankweiler’s evolved into a regular drive-in. It switched to in-car speakers in 1948. Hurricane Diane destroyed the projection booth and “Shadow Box Screen” in 1955, so the drive-in rebuilt with a CinemaScope screen and a typical concession / projection / restroom building.
According to Lehigh Valley Business, in 1958, Shankweiler rented the drive-in to Al Moffa, a close friend who had helped him build it. “The next year, Shankweiler sold it to Moffa’s manager, Bob Malkemis.” Electrician Paul Geissinger was working there as a projectionist in 1982 when the drive-in added AM radio sound to supplement the speakers.
Before he passed away in 1984, Malkemis sold Shankweiler’s to Geissinger and his wife to keep it going. (An article in The Christian Science Monitor said the purchase was in 1985.) In 1986, Geissinger built the first FM broadcast unit for use in a drive-in, as I once mentioned in an old article recap.
That Lehigh Valley Business article from August 2015 said that the Geissingers still owned Shankweiler’s, and it looks like that’s still true today. “I felt obligated to keep this place going,” Geissinger said. “I fell in love with the place.” It made the switch to digital conversion by 2013.
You’re not going to find many better drive-in profiles than the embedded YouTube video of the day from Retro Roadmap and Mod Betty. It shows what it’s like today and talks about its history, all in an entertaining package. Enjoy!
Shankweiler’s closed its season on Labor Day. I’m glad that such a historic place is still going strong.
Miles Today / Total: 11 / 39959 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200
Nearby Restaurant: I don’t know whether Norma J’s Restaurant in Orefield came before or after the drive-in, so it’s definitely vintage. It’s not fancy, but it’s a fine example of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. I had a huge omelette for a late breakfast, with enough coffee to make me forget the temperature outside.
Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotel to Shankweiler’s is about four miles away, a Holiday Inn Express in western Allentown. That works. There were cookies and coffee waiting at check-in. My comfortable room had all the modern amenities including a Keurig coffee maker. Breakfast was the usual high HIE standard including its addicting cinnamon rolls. All this and proximity too!
Only in Orefield: What, the world’s oldest surviving drive-in theater isn’t enough for you? Roadside America says you can also find a landlocked lighthouse in Orefield that really just a redecorated grain silo on a family farm.
Next stop: Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre, Gratz PA.