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!
Not this kind of drive-in dog
Pet360.com reminded me recently of yet another reason why drive-ins can be more fun than indoor movie theaters. With drive-ins, it’s okay if you bring your dog to watch with you.
The uncredited author talked with Don and Susan Sanders, who wrote the book The American Drive-In Movie Theater. One of them (perhaps both in unison?) was quoted as saying, “Dogs help us to meet people. People take their dogs to the drive-in and socialize with others who have a pet.”
According to Cindy Deppe of Becky’s Drive-In (Berlinsville PA), a growing number of customers are bringing dogs. “Fido can relax next to their owners instead of staying home alone,” she said.
The article’s a fun, offbeat look at drive-ins and dogs, so you ought to go read it. But ignore the suggestion to rely on DriveInTheater.com for the latest drive-in list. I love that site, but I don’t think it’s been updated for 10 years. Am I wrong?
WNEP, Scranton PA’s news leader, ran a story last week about the Mahoning Drive-In in nearby Mahoning Township. There’s a dispute there between the Mahoning’s projectionist / manager and a Florida guy who said he wanted to lease-purchase the place. It turns out that a similar scene played out last year at the Tee Pee Drive-In of Sapulpa OK, where things didn’t work out so well.
According to WNEP, Mahoning manager Mike Danchak was contacted by Glen Brannon, who said he wanted to lease and eventually buy the drive-in so it would continue to operate. So this spring a bunch of volunteers helped spruce up the Mahoning. Then Brannan sold 250 season passes for $59 a carload, but Danchak said the drive-in “would go bankrupt” if they accepted those, so he had to buy them back, using up the money he was saving toward buying a digital projector.
The remarkable thing about this story is how closely it matches what happen to the Tee Pee. According to a summary at Route66News.com, the same Florida guy, then going by the name Russ Glen, lease-purchased the Tee Pee, which had closed in 1999. (Speaking of confusing names, you’ll see the name Tee Pee used with and without a space in various news stories. Based on photos of the original sign, I’m going with Tee Pee.)
Soon after Glen entered the picture, a group of volunteers repainted and cleaned up the Tee Pee. The summary says that Glen also set up the TeePee Drive-In Theater Association to accept donations of money and equipment for the theater’s restoration. A month later, one of the volunteers said “the association is suspending the acceptance of donations, and money from the bank account has been removed because of ‘issues with the legitimacy of the nonprofit.'” Glen insisted that everything was perfectly legitimate. And from all accounts, the Tee Pee never reopened.
And that’s about as far as I can go, given that I have no first-hand information about any of these stories. I recommend the Route66News summary, which also includes a lot of links and embedded videos of the Tee Pee saga. For the Mahoning, only time will tell.