LEHIGHTON, Pa. — Once a ghost town, an empty field in a quiet valley that attracted a handful of cars at most, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater was alive with skeletons, children, mummies, and a few dogs on a recent Friday night.
Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman chatted behind a car at dusk, then got into character and shuffled off into the growing dark for photos with the public. Virgil Cardamone, 36, one of the drive-in’s co-owners, was as joyous as Dr. Frankenstein was when he shouted “It’s alive!” in the 1931 horror classic, because the cars kept pouring in through the ticket gate.
“This place is a magnet for strange,” he said. “And we embrace that. It’s people who love nostalgia and love a drive-in. It’s now become a bankable, marketable thing. Hollywood is run on nostalgia and reboots, but the idea of capturing your youth, you can’t duplicate that better than a drive-in.”
The weekend’s theme at the Mahoning, a 1,000-car drive-in Mahoning Township, 94 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was “Universal Monster Mash," two nights of double features that included Revenge of the Creature and House of Dracula. But it wasn’t just about watching black-and-white movies on 35-millimeter film at the only remaining drive-in to use that format. The Mahoning doubled as a near-haunted house that night, with customers wearing horror-theme masks and shirts, their cars adorned with stickers from Universal’s famous stable of monsters.
Inside the concession stand, a handmade, Egyptian-theme diorama had been erected. J.T. Mills, 34, of Scranton, made the entire tableau himself, bought items he couldn’t create, including the sarcophagus, and set it up by the projector room. He wasn’t reimbursed and didn’t charge money for photographs.
“I mean, I do it for the love of a good party,” Mills said. “Nowhere else puts on a show like this. It’s kind of crazy. All the extra things add to the experience."
Mills longs to build a Karate Kid-themed display.
Cardamone and Matthew McClanahan, another partner in the Mahoning, met while working at a Montgomery County vineyard. They went into business with Jeff Mattox, a longtime projectionist there, in 2014, when the theater was still trying to play first-run movies, like any other theater, and not doing well.
“It was dire straits starting out,” McClanahan said.
When faced with choosing between the original projectors that opened the theater in 1949 and the six-figure cost of a digital conversion, the trio decided to stick with the old and play 35-millimeter movies, constantly scouring the internet to find parts to keep the machines going. Mattox, 61, of Kutztown, was trained to be a projectionist in the Air Force. Pennsylvania, he said, used to require a licence for projectionists.
“They dropped that about 15 years ago. It’s a dying art,” he said.
America’s first drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933, at where Camden meets Pennsauken. Today, Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, opened in 1934 in Orefield, Lehigh County, is the nation’s oldest operating drive-in. The drive-in fit perfectly into post-World War II America, combining a love of automobiles and entertainment. Drive-ins were often built on cheap land far from population centers. There were 4,000 such theaters in the United States by the end of the 1950s. But as the suburbs sprawled out over farmland and into once-rural areas in subsequent decades, land values increased and theater owners sold out.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, 317 drive-ins remained open as of August 2018. Pennsylvania had 26, second in the nation behind New York. Only one drive-in remains in New Jersey: the Delsea, on Route 47 in Vineland, Cumberland County.
“My home theater is now a Target,” Cardamone said.
At sundown, the Mahoning’s 109-foot-wide screen, made of Bethlehem steel, lit up. Cheers erupted from the crowd. After a cartoon and a Three Stooges short, the 1955 Revenge of the Creature opened with eerie music, bad decisions by all characters, and a brief cameo by a young Clint Eastwood.
All told, the theater sold 700 tickets for the weekend, and customers came from New York and New Jersey. One employee drives in from New Hampshire — six hours away — every weekend to work the register. Cardamone and McClanahan sleep in a camper there over the weekend. Along with cars, though, there were also a few dozen tents on the grounds, a feature unique to the Mahoning, so guests could spend the night and watch the following day’s double feature, too. It’s called an overnight pass, not camping.
McClanahan wants people to have a tactile, analog experience.
“There’s a dying off of ‘going.’ People don’t go places anymore. People don’t find places to congregate anymore. That’s what we’re encouraging," he said.
Cassandra Bunk, 38, of Stanhope, N.J., brought her daughter, Jocelyn, 7, to camp out for the weekend, rather than get a campsite elsewhere or a hotel, both of which are more expensive.
“They only play old, old monster movies, and it’s very cool,” Jocelyn said. “It’s cool because they’re not really scary.”
The Mahoning is open from late April to Halloween, and often, the weekends are themed. This weekend, the theater will play Woodstock, and there will also be live music before the show. The following weekend — Camp Blood V — is for real horror films, with a multitude of slasher flicks and special guests.
Cardamone also takes suggestions, the craziest double feature you can think of.
“We’re all about pushing the envelope," he said. “We want to show the world what you can do with a drive-in in 2019.”