In 1933, while traveling home from summer vacation, Wilson Shankweiler passed by the nation’s first drive-in movie theater, which had just opened in Camden, N.J.
Inspired by the idea, when Shankweiler returned home to North Whitehall Township, he went to work on converting the four acres of land he owned behind his Shankweiler’s Hotel in Orefield.
The next year, Shankweiler’s Drive-In opened as the first drive-in movie theater of its kind in Pennsylvania and the second in the nation.
Today, Shankweiler’s is the oldest drive-in theater in America.
Through the years, as retail moguls and housing developers swooped in to gobble up land that hosted drive-ins, the industry began to shrivel. Meanwhile, movie-goers wanted better sound and pictures, further thinning the number of drive-ins since many used old technology and never upgraded to satisfy their consumers.
In order for the remaining drive-ins such as Shankweiler’s to survive, it required investing money, time and training to transition through the technological demands and changes in the industry.
“I felt obligated to keep this place going,” said Paul Geissinger, 62, who has worked at Shankweiler’s since he was 17 and has co-owned it with his wife, Susan, for nearly 25 years. “I fell in love with the place.”
While operating Shankweiler’s Hotel, Wilson Shankweiler originally used the land behind it as a walk-in theater, with a sheet and a 16-millimeter projector to show movies to hotel guests.
Not knowing much about how to build and run a drive-in theater, Shankweiler turned to close friend Al Moffa, who owned several Allentown theaters and who collected projectors and parts. Once Moffa gave his friend the knowledge and tools, Shankweiler’s effort soared.
“He did everything himself,” Geissinger said of Shankweiler.