It’s Day 364 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Thanks to some very twisty highways, it took well over an hour to drive the 45 miles from the Midway Drive-In Theater in Mifflintown PA to the Cumberland Drive-In Theatre southeast of Newville PA.
The Cumberland has one of the nicest, most thorough Wikipedia pages that I’ve ever seen for a drive-in theater. You can go read that if you want the more recent play-by-play of its successful switch to digital conversion. Instead, I prefer to write about its origins, which were quite a drama.
The Valley Times-Star of Newville printed a front page story on March 26, 1952 about Donn Mowery, 28, whose indoor Newville Theatre had been totalled by a fire two weeks earlier. (Reportedly, the fire started when a floodlight touched an “inflammable” theatre curtain before a show. Fortunately, it occurred while the theater was mostly empty, so no one was injured.) Citing competition from the local Home Owners association’s subsequent decision to show movies in Memorial Hall, Mowery said that after the insurance appraisal was completed, he’d level the ruins and start building a drive-in theatre instead. The article also mentioned “remarks from L. O. Mowery (Levi, Donn’s father) to the borough council prior to the fire that the movie was losing money”, which was why the association didn’t expect the old indoor theater to be rebuilt.
In the April 2 issue, the Times-Star said that Mowery had purchased 12 acres from farmer Robert Mains, who had “rejected a number of offers in recent years for the site.” The planned drive-in would hold about 500 cars and open by July 4. Mowery later said there would be “seats for those who could not sit comfortably in their cars” if he could overcome material shortages. Still later, he said the drive-in would cost $80,000 to build, and construction began on May 21.
On July 9, Mowery announced that the drive-in, now named the Cumberland, would open on Friday, July 25, delayed because of rain. Two weeks later, he announced a postponement to August 1 due to flooding from a storm. With “several thousand dollars” of cost overruns and space for 550 cars and 60 chairs, that’s when it opened, showing Annie Get Your Gun. Perhaps because of its late start, the Cumberland stayed open through Nov. 29 that year.
An April 2003 article in The Sentinel of Carlisle PA interviewed Jay Mowery, Donn’s youngest son who ran the drive-in “along with his three brothers”. Jay said that his father was still “proprietor of the company” more than 50 years after its start. The article said that the family had leased out the drive-in in the early 1990s, then discovered they missed it. With family friend J. B. McNichol, they restored and revived the place.
Jay Mowery told The Sentinel in 2003 that he expected the Cumberland would one day be run by a third generation of Mowerys, but he didn’t seem eager to leave. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” he said. “You can’t really explain it. When the moon comes up behind the screen tower, that’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Indeed, Jay was still there in April 2017 for an article in The Sentinel about the Cumberland’s 65th anniversary. It said that the original concession / projection / rest room building was still there too. Since it’s surrounded by preserved farms that can’t be developed, this drive-in should stay around for decades to come.
The embedded video of the day is from WPMT, Harrisburg’s News Leader, as an excited correspondent sees what a drive-in movie looks like when it’s projected during the day.
Miles Today / Total: 45 / 40138 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200
Nearby Restaurant: The Cumberland is in the middle of so much protected farmland that, unless you count gas station convenience stores, the closest restaurants are in Carlisle. On a cold day with a closed (for the season) drive-in, I’m happy to see the word Diner. The Walnut Bottom Diner is open all day long, including breakfast all day, so it’s probably always worth a visit. I enjoyed some great biscuits and gravy with plenty of coffee to steel myself against the weather outside.
Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotels to the Cumberland are in Carlisle, and one of those is a Hampton Inn. For my penultimate odyssey night, I wanted my favorite chain. There were cookies and coffee waiting at check-in. My clean, comfortable room had all the modern amenities. Breakfast in the morning was the usual, high Hampton standard. I’m almost going to miss it when I’m sleeping in my own bed again next week.
Only in Newville: Once again Roadside America points to the most interesting sight, just a few miles west of the drive-in in Shippensburg. Tiny World is a city of four-feet high buildings made for and occupied by four-footed residents – cats. They were the work of retiree Ernest Helm. His reason for building Tiny World: “It was something to do.” Helm passed away in 2015, but Tiny World is still operating and looks especially nice when its buildings get colorful lights at Christmastime.
Next Last stop: Haar’s Drive-In Theatre, Dillsburg PA.