One of the great things about Honda’s Project Drive-In campaign has been the number of national media outlets that have picked up the story of the need to switch to digital projectors and how that affects the fragile economics of drive-in theaters. MSN was a recent example, running a short summary a couple of days ago. Almost hidden on that page is a link to a much longer sidebar article by Erik Sofge of MSN Autos. Sofge profiles Shankweiler’s (Orefield PA) and frames it as the perfect example of the whole history of drive-in theaters. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but Sofge is right.
I already knew that Shankweiler’s was America’s second drive-in theater, opening in April 1934. Its first screen was a sheet and two poles, showing a movie from a 16mm projector on a table, near a single large speaker for sound. It started small (that speaker only carried so far) and stayed small, with room for about 320 cars. The sound system improved, of course, with in-car speakers in the 1940s, then FM radio in 1986 “when co-owner Paul Geissinger built the first such broadcast unit for use in a drive-in.”
Meanwhile, the drive-in boom rolled across the country. Some 1950s and 60s drive-ins held 3000 cars. Then came the bust. “There were many times, even in the ’70s, when there more employees at the theater than customers,” Geissinger said. “That was the start of VCRs. And we couldn’t pay for new prints. We didn’t play ‘Star Wars’ until it had been out for a year.”
Sofge writes that the spread of indoor multiplex theaters helped the drive-ins hang on. The extra indoor theaters needed more prints, so there were more copies of second-run movies for drive-ins to book. Attendance stabilized.
Then came the need to switch to digital projection, which Geissinger installed after the end of the 2012 season. There are more great quotes about that, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. For more great anecdotes about America’s oldest surviving drive-in, plus a few photos, go read it!