Virgil Cardamone couldn’t sleep July 13. He obsessed over how to relay the message that everything he and his friends had built over the last six years on a grassy lot in rural Carbon County was in jeopardy.
The next morning, it dawned on him: He would, as he put it, “tear his heart open” in a smartphone video broadcast over social media, pleading with hundreds of the regulars at the Mahoning Drive-In to help save the institution.
In the six-minute video, Cardamone laid out the scenario: A green-energy company out of Connecticut had paid to option the land the theater sat on for a solar-panel farm. The local zoning board was going to vote in a few weeks, and the 38-year-old was rallying fans of ‘80s classics, forgotten B-movies, and films everywhere to plead with Greenskies Clean Energy LLC to change its mind.
“The drive-in will never die,” Cardamone said in his sign-off, flicking tears out of his eyes with his thumb. “Mark my words.”
Two days and hundreds of emails, Facebook posts, and phone calls later, he posted a second video, announcing, almost in disbelief, that the grassroots campaign had been successful. Greenskies had agreed to pull its plan, and the theater’s landlord had expressed a willingness to sell the four-acre property to Cardamone and his business partners.
“To have the whole entire culture rise up and let them know how much it means to them, for me, I feel this business is invincible, even with all the madness going on,” Cardamone said in an interview last week. “This place is an escape for people, and it’s a celebration of a simpler time.”
As the Hatboro native put it, this ending isn’t normal. It’s closer to the plot of the movies that Cardamone and his partners project onto the Mahoning’s 109-foot-wide screen.
But it’s a reality. The latest chapter in the saga of a 72-year-old drive-in theater in the Pocono Mountains, an anachronistic landmark that has been repeatedly saved from obsolesce by a group of film buffs.
Still, Cardamone is quick to point out that Greenskies is not the villain of this story.
“For them to step back and realize what this place meant to so many people took courage,” he said. “They saved this place, and they saved my life’s work.”
In 2015, Cardamone and Matthew McClanahan worked with longtime theater operator Jeff Mattox to save the struggling business by switching from first-run blockbusters to retro film favorites and niche genre movies, all played on original, 35mm film reels.
The results were immediate: Whereas cars were once sparse in the lot, fans from as far away as Canada began making regular treks to Lehighton, a town two hours north of Philadelphia living in the shadow of tourism darling Jim Thorpe.
Themed movie events — ”Camp Blood” for Friday the 13th and its ilk and a “Hanks-giving Weekend” celebrating Tom Hanks and Turkey Day, to a name a few — have drawn crowds, often dressed in costume, who camp out under the glow of the screen.
One couple even booked the drive-in as their wedding venue in a September 2016 ceremony.
Greenskies’ vice president of policy and new markets, Jeffrey Hintzke, admitted he wasn’t aware of that history earlier this year when he contacted property owner Joe Farruggio about optioning the land. His mind quickly changed when the company became bombarded with messages from Mahoning fans after Cardamone’s video was posted online.
“Pretty simply, the passion of the local as well as the broader film community sort of made us realize that this would be an uphill fight, if not an impossible one,” Hintzke said. “It certainly was not worth the fight and animosity it would develop in the local community.”
His communication with Farruggio, he said, gave him the impression that the drive-in “was not long to be in business.” When the inverse turned out to be true, the company unanimously made the decision to stand down.
“Broadly speaking, we like to be good corporate citizens,” Hintzke said. “And we don’t like to do things that don’t make sense.”
Farruggio, however, believes that the company was unfairly forced into that situation. Greenskies was bullied, he said, into making a decision that cost them money, and jeopardized his own retirement.
“They created this media circus, got all their website friends to go and absolutely bombard Greenskies with negative comments and threats,” Farruggio said. “And the company had no option but to withdraw the application.”
Farruggio, 73, owns a small empire of theaters — three other drive-ins besides the Mahoning, as well as the Gap Theater, a single-screen movie house in Wind Gap, Northampton County. He had hoped the deal with Greenskies would help secure a comfortable retirement for himself, and a sound investment for his family after years of struggling.
He says he lets the Mahoning operate on his land for less than what he pays in property taxes. After this recent back-and-forth, he confirmed that he is willing to negotiate the sale of the land with Cardamone. So long as, he says, it’s under the proper terms.
“I don’t want to say I won’t sell to them. I’m 73, and I’ll need to do something soon,” Farruggio said. “Sales are an option, but not under these circumstances. I won’t be a seller under duress.”
But the people who implored Greenskies to save the theater say its value transcends any amount of money.
For Corey Reilly, the thought of visiting the drive-in was all that kept him going after undergoing painful hip surgery. And when he was finally able to make that six-hour drive from his home in a suburb of Cleveland, Reilly knew the wait had been worth it.
“It’s like seeing a bunch of old friends you’ve never met before,” Reilly said. “Everyone is so courteous, and the layout is just nostalgia personified.”
So, naturally, he was part of the letter-writing campaign to Greenskies. He hoped the company’s leaders could understand just a fraction of the love he had for the place.
“Movies, they reflect part of our culture, they reflect the history they were made in,” he said. “And having a place like this that keeps film alive, keeps part of decades of art alive, is amazing.”
But the drive-in’s army of defenders weren’t all out-of-towners. Carla Bowman, a lifetime Lehighton resident, was upset at the news, and was fully prepared to march to the township zoning board meeting to protest the Greenskies plan.
Cardamone and his partners had won Bowman over in February when the local middle school canceled the annual eighth-grade celebration because of COVID-19. Distraught that the tradition wouldn’t go on, Bowman looked for alternative locations for the event to be held safely.
The Mahoning delivered, offering its field to house bounce castles and games, and capping the night with — what else — a movie screening.
“This was a family event, and this is what it’s all about,” she said. “Saving this place is more than just watching movies. It was coming together as a common interest.”