Dec. 28: Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre, Gratz PA

It’s Day 362 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. On an even colder, partly sunny day, my virtual odometer rolled over 40,000 during the hour and a half it took to drive from the historic Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Orefield PA to the Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre in Gratz PA.

Norman Gasbarro’s Lykens Valley blog has a great history of the Sky-Vu. “In 1949, the land on which the theatre now stands, was sold by Allen Lincoln Shade and Etta May [Hartman] Shade to Eston C. Artz and Stanford E. Carl. Eston and Stanford established a partnership to create the Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre in 1950.” The 1949-50 Theatre Catalog listed it as under construction.

The first newspaper reference I could find was its first ad in the Elizabethville Echo on July 13, 1950. It doesn’t quite say so, but it appears to be a grand opening ad: “SKY VU Drive-In Theatre welcomes you to one of America’s most unique outside theatres.” The ad described the Sky Vu’s benefits in copy that wasn’t repeated in the ads that followed. The Echo was a weekly, so the Grand Opening might have been a few days earlier, but some time in July 1950 looks pretty solid.

Contemporary theater reference books listed the Sky Vu’s capacity at around 230 cars. The 1951-59 International Motion Picture Almanacs said it was owned by G. Wolfe, and the 1961-66 editions said the owner was E. Hotz. I can’t find anything else about either of those people.

When ownership information resumed after a decade off, the IMPA’s 1978 edition listed “Trautman” as the owner. That matches another section of the Lykens Valley blog’s story. Around 1969, Marvin Troutman, son of Marvin and Ada Troutman, bought the Sky-Vu and the nearby Halifax Drive-In. “Shortly afterward,” he and his wife Doris formed Martro Theatres, Inc. According to the blog, they began running X-rated movies at both drive-ins, although the Sky-Vu’s newspaper listings from May 1975 had family fare.

At some point, the Sky-Vu must have closed, because the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association wrote that it reopened in 1994. Several reports all say that the Sky Vu closed (again) in the summer of 2014.  A commenter at Cinema Treasures suggested that Carmike Cinemas’ purchase of Digiplex that May led to the closure. But Digiplex was founded in 2010, so someone else must have been running the drive-in before then.

Tim Neal told the Pottsville Republican Herald that Marvin Troutman still owned the place in 2016, as Neal announced that he and his wife Renate had begun a three-year lease to reopen the drive-in. Troutman’s daughter, Gina Troutman DiSanto, also included a digital projector with the lease.

“We’re very fortunate she was willing to take on the risk and we’ve been so blessed to have people helping us out along the way,” Neal said. “This has been a turn-key operation.” From what I can tell, everything’s been going fine ever since.

The embedded video of the day is from WHTM, Harrisburg’s News Leader. It does a fine job of showing what the place is like, and I’m really happy that it recognized the public-minded soul who donated a great-looking pinball machine to the concession stand.

The Sky-Vu closed its season on at the end of October. I’m glad that its latest lease on life is still rolling along.

Miles Today / Total: 75 / 40034 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200

Nearby Restaurant: If you want to eat in Gratz, you’ll want to eat at Kissinger’s Family Restaurant. I stuck with the Pennsylvania Dutch food for its German roots. Kissinger’s knows how to make a real Bavarian pretzel, and I followed that with a veal schnitzel served with spaetzle. Add some cheesecake with peanut butter icing for dessert, and I was full for the rest of the day.

Where I Virtually Stayed: There simply aren’t any hotels anywhere around the Sky-Vu. Google suggested that the closest are 23 miles away in Pine Grove, so that’s where I went. To save $50 over the Hampton Inn price, I stayed at the Comfort Inn there. My older room had a full set of modern amenities, and breakfast included the Comfort Inn waffle machine to go along with the continental standards. It all worked.

Only in Gratz: Gratz is the birthplace of Carl Scheib, a major-league baseball pitcher with a most unusual career. When he debuted with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1943 at the age of 16, he was the youngest person ever to ever in the majors, but he didn’t win a game until 1947. Scheib’s hitting was so good and his pitching so lackluster that, according to Baseball Reference, he was much more valuable at the plate than on the mound. Last year, Lawrence Knorr released a new biography of Scheib, still the youngest player in American League history.

Next stop: Midway Drive-In Theater, Mifflintown PA.

Dec. 27: Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, Orefield PA

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.

Dec. 26: Becky’s Drive-In, Walnutport PA

It’s Day 360 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey, time to return to Pennsylvania for the final six drive-in visits. On this cold, sunny day, that meant spending a bit under four hours driving from the Southington Drive-In in Southington CT to Becky’s Drive-In just east of Walnutport PA.

Becky’s, the legacy of William “Becky” Beck, opened as the Route 45 Drive-In in the 1940s. The exact dates vary in the telling, but Beck opened a drive-in on leased land, then two years later purchased a lot that was a block away and built there. Cinema Treasures has a Grand Opening ad from June 26, 1946. The Lehigh Valley Marketplace wrote that Beck “opened the Route 45 Drive-in on leased property; in 1946, he bought the land where his namesake theater now stands.” Which would put the first opening in 1944.

The Blue Mountain Town & Country Gazette wrote in July 2014 that when the Route 45 opened, it had two loudspeakers for the whole viewing field. “Around 1981, he put in the radio transmitters in AM, so people couldn’t steal or damage the speakers,” said Beck’s son Darrell. “Then it went to FM and it’s done that way still today.”

Around 1971, Beck switched to adult movies “for survival” according to later generations. “People would snicker, but we had to do that or there would be a store here now,” co-owner Cindy Beck Deppe told The Allentown Morning Call in September 1997. It was also about that time when Pennsylvania promulgated a change to that highway’s number from 45 to 248, and about when the Route 45 changed its name to Becky’s. (However, a Morning Call traffic accident story in September 1972 still called it the Route 45.)

By all accounts, Beck gave generously of his time and talents and was a beloved figure in the community. The Morning Call wrote in October 1982 that neighbors weren’t bothered that Becky’s was showing X-rated movies. It said that he had retired and his son Dennis had purchased the drive-in “at the beginning of the year.” That matched when the Gazette said all five Beck siblings bought the business.

William Beck died in 1987, and the following year his widow and children switched back to family films. Second-eldest Dale Beck passed away in 1997, but the remaining siblings and their families still run Becky’s. The drive-in added a second screen in 2005 and swapped it for a permanent second screen in 2007. More recently, they put in a new refreshment stand (midway between the screens) and expanded the restroom facilities.

In 2013, drive-in historian Don Sanders called Becky’s the best drive-in in the country. “It offers everything a drive-in’s supposed to offer,” he told USA Today. “Really good food, a pastoral setting, a field sloped so you can see.”

The embedded video of the day is another rare treat. It’s a collection of news reports about Becky’s in 2001-2003, posted on the drive-in’s Facebook page.

Becky’s closed its season in mid-October. I’m glad that such a class act is still going strong.

Miles Today / Total: 200 / 39948 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200

Nearby Restaurant: The Fire Stone Pizza & Grill sounds like just a pizza joint, but it’s got a lot more than that. More than strombolis and calzones, the Fire Stone also takes pride in its topped French fries and hamburgers. I had the “loaded” fries with bacon and cheddar, then a mushroom swiss burger. Maybe I’ll just eat a big salad tomorrow.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotels to Becky’s are in Lehighton, about 11 miles away, and one of those is a Hampton Inn. There were cookies, flavored water and coffee waiting for me at check-in. My comfortable, standardized room had all the modern amenities. The fine standard Hampton breakfast had plenty of warm protein to go along with the continental favorites. Staying here was just a no-brainer.

Only in Walnutport: Next door in Slatington, there’s a historic Fireman’s Drinking Fountain. The 12-foot high statue depicts a volunteer fireman carrying a child and holding a lantern, illuminated with an electric light at night. It was erected in 1909 in the center of Slatington to provide a drinking fountain for people and a drinking area for horses and dogs. After it was damaged in a 1979 car accident, it was restored and rededicated in July 1980.

Next stop: Shankweilers Drive-In Theatre, Orefield PA.