Founded on April 15, 1934, Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theater in Orefield was the second ever built and currently stands as the oldest continuously operated drive-in theater in the world.
But as its new owners, Matthew McClanahan and Lauren McChesney, celebrate the theater’s 89th anniversary, they are keenly aware that the landmark could easily have been knocked down for a gas station or warehouse if it wasn’t for the dedication of drive-in movie fans like themselves and its previous owners, Paul and Susan Geissinger, who ran Shankweiler’s for the past 40 years.
McClanahan said the popularity of drive-ins hasn’t really decreased that much over the years, most of the drive-ins that have closed over the last few decades did so, because the property was worth more than the business and theater owners gave up the theaters to cash in on the value of the land.
“There is a perception that drive-ins have lost popularity. But that’s now true. “The value of the land simply outpriced the value of the business,” he said.
The Geissingers had been loyal owners of the drive-in but were looking to retire. They could have likely sold the theater for more money if they had been willing to let a developer take over and repurpose the property, but instead McClanahan said they sold it to him and his partner for just over $1 million – much less than he probably could have gotten – with the promise that they would continue to operate the beloved drive-in.
“We’re very grateful he was willing to negotiate with us to keep it as a drive-in. He could have sold it for a lot more,” said McChesney
Mcclanahan and McChesney come with a bit of experience. For the past several years they have been operating a mobile drive-in movie business, providing an outdoor, drive-in movie experience for communities and private parties.
The two had been hoping to open their own, new drive-in, but decided they would buy the nostalgic Orefield drive-in instead.
Their plans are on the ambitious side.
While many drive-ins in the northeast open seasonally and often-times only on weekends, the partners plan to run Shankweiler’s as a year-round business and started showing movies shortly after they purchased the property in November.
“We reopened a week after the closing,” he said. “It was exciting because we got a lot of people who were first timers.”
While over the winter months they only showed films on weekends, they plan to add Thursday to the schedule this month and then by May plan to show movies 7-days a week.
They are also hoping to make the drive-in more of an experience for guests.
While they will have the traditional drive-in concession stand serving popcorn and drinks, they will also bring in things like food trucks and guest brewers and distillers to give movie-goers a little something extra.
They also plan to hold non-traditional drive-in events ranging from festivals to craft shows during the daytime when movies aren’t being shown.
“We ask ourselves, what would we have enjoyed,” said McChesney.
For their movie selections, they will mirror what a lot of other drive-in theaters do – showing a mix of new release and classic movies, paired with similar movies that guests would enjoy.
Recent examples include the pairing of Puss & Boots and The Last Starfighter. They also paired Cocaine Bear with Tremors to give movie fans a double dose of schlocky horror.
Their favorite movie pairing came over the winter months when they showed The Thing, which is set in the artic.
“It left an impression” said Mclanahan. “People said ‘man this is like a 4D experience.”
Some, he said, were so into the idea of watching the artic movie in artic-like weather that they gave up the warmth of their car and watched the movie standing or sitting outside.
Since the duo reopened the drive-in so quickly, they didn’t really have time for a grand opeing, so instead they will be celebrating the anniversary of the theater’s founding with a party on April 15.
There will be an official ribbon cutting and a birthday party proceeding the night’s movies.
“Eighty-nine might not seem like a milestone,” said McChesney. “But when you’re the oldest, every year is a milestone.”