Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Whether it’s seeing an old friend, a certain smell in the air or hearing a song you haven’t heard in years, those things can teleport us back to a memory or feeling to revel in if only for a moment. One of those nostalgic things is Drive-in theaters. An invention patented in Camden, NJ by Richard Hollingshead Jr. came to fruition in 1933 and despite setbacks drive-in theaters ultimately thrived as a source of entertainment in the 1950’s. By 1959 there were 4063 drive-ins theaters across America. By 1990 that number dwindled to 910, today that number is down to 338.
Luckily one of the 338 is only a ten-minute ride from where I live, the Mahoning Valley Drive-in Theater. This theater and I have a history; back in the summer of 1977, my parents took a three and a half-year-old me to see a little film there. You may have heard of it, it’s called Star Wars “A New Hope”.
The thing that makes this theater different from other drive-ins today is, well everything; from resisting the digital movement and keeping to 35 mm film to the “overnight experience” to the retro feel. I had almost forgotten about this theater as it had simply become background noise in my daily commute to and from work. A week ago I was on my way home from a class in Baltimore, MD when the billboard caught my eye due to what it read: “Vampyarty: The Lost Boy, Fright Night & Vampire’s Kiss”. I immediately dialed up my wife on speakerphone and told her what our plans were going to be that evening. As it turns out it ended up being our plans for both nights that weekend. Being able to see the Lost Boys and Fright Night (a film in my all time top 10) on the big screen at a drive-in was something I thought I’d never had the chance to do. Fright Night was brilliantly directed by Tom Holland and came out in 1985; it is the first film I remember watching over and over. I probably rented it so much from the local video store that they should have just given it to me. Two years later in 1987 Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys debuted and made vampires cool, Kiefer Sutherland’s Michael may have inspired my mullet. On the second night of viewing a light misty fog rolled in adding to the ambiance making the backdrop a perfect atmosphere for horror film viewing. It made me feel as though I was about to enter into the dangers of Fright Night for real alongside Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) and Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) to do battle with Jerry Dandridge (Chris Saradon). This is the way these films were meant to be seen. Even the previews were retro including trailers for Tom Hanks’s Joe vs. The Volcano and Leslie Neilson’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
One of my favorite parts about this experience was the decorating of the snack bar in all things Lost Boys and Fright Night. Everything from garlic necklaces to the Jim Morrison backdrop was there.
Last evening I had the pleasure of sitting down with the gentlemen who make this Drive-In Theater what it is: a one of a kind experience where everyone is made to feel they are part of it. The men behind the magic are: Jeff Mattox the business owner and long time projectionist, Matt McClanahan the General manager otherwise known as “The Guy”, Virgil Cardamone partner and film booking and procurement, Cory Pace who is known as “Chef Cory” calls himself a co-helper. During our conversation, Jeff informed me that this is the second largest drive-in and second largest screen in the United States. There are drive-ins that are larger but have multiple screens but on a per-screen basis, the Mahoning Valley Drive-In Theater is number two. The films are shown using vintage twin Simplex E7 35 mm projectors.
Matt is a graduate of Temple film school and happened to be in the area a few years ago in Ashley, PA helping film a documentary on one of the last coal breakers in Pennsylvania. On his way home a twist of fate known as construction traffic put him on an alternate route he decided to try after looking at his atlas. So instead of taking his normal left turn, he made a right and down the road, a few miles did a double take as he drove by the billboard. He actually thought it was abandoned until he realized it was playing two newer films; a double-bill of Transformers and Edge of Tomorrow. Matt made his way back that evening and met Jeff and a spark was ignited. A week later Matt returned with Virgil and an idea was born. Matt had formally worked for Virgil and from the interview for the job they knew of each other’s love for cinema and theater. Matt’s love for theater really manifested when he was out in Los Angeles for an internship. The guys want this to be known as “the ultimate cinematic time capsule” showing 100% classic films on 35 mm film. They are definitely staying true to this showing films such as Kingdom of Spiders, Night of the Leepus and coming in July is a VHS fest showing rare horror gems that a lot of people may not have ever even heard of. Vendors will also be there throughout the weekend pedaling and promoting along with live music.
Virgil compares each weekend to a ComiCon. People come dressed in attire and decorate their vehicles in tune with the theme for each weekend. This past weekend for the Vampyarty a vehicle showed up with a coffin for people to pose in and take photos. The best part of it is that the guys don’t ask for this, it just happens due to true fandom, heck one weekend someone was walking around dressed as Godzilla; you just never know what it is you will see but you can be sure fandom is embraced, you can be part of the show and you will be entertained. Matt loves that this gives a personal edge changing people’s lives in positive ways by providing a space to hang out, being yourself and making connections whether it be a fellow fan, a future business partner or a certain writer from Gruesome Magazine. It’s a perfect marriage of sticking to roots with the old school while keeping on the cutting edge.
Jeff uses the quote “restore don’t renovate” to capture the feeling he had when he was a child being brought to the drive-ins by his parents. The idea is to make you feel you are in a time warp when you go through the gate. Before Jeff arrived in 2001 the posts and speakers had been taken out in favor of fm radio but his hope is to put them back in sometime down the road.
The first film the guys showed together as a team was Guardians of the Galaxy. The crowd was not very big and that’s when the idea came to Jeff to go classic. Every drive-in and indoor theater were showing Galaxy. Jeff brought the classic film idea up to Matt and Virgil and they agreed. It started slow but then began to build momentum as word spread about this big old drive-in that found its niche showing classic films on 35 mm in the middle of nowhere. How far has word spread? Their audience includes fans from all over including PA, NY, NJ, CA, Canada and even people from across the pond in France and Ireland. The long distance fans have prompted the overnight camping venture.
Things here organically happen including the decorations in the snack bar to the gathering around the fire barrel after the films to the Bathroom Spoiler Stall that began with “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time” and now new spoilers are added to the stall weekly by fans.
Virgil compares this venture to a band that puts out songs that become hits and a concert is held every weekend. Retro fans love this place and the horror community is huge there. Walking around last weekend I heard many conversations centered around horror films and the actors the fans love. Some of the upcoming events are Batman weekend, Back to the Future Weekend, Animals Gone Wild weekend (which includes films like Grizzly), Return to Camp Blood and the much anticipated VHS festival.
Jeff, Matt, Virgil, and Cory have built something special here. Price is $10 per person for the films and if you want to camp out it is $10 per carload. If you are a fan this is worth checking out you will see unique sites as you are transported back to another time when leather jackets and poodle skirts were all the rage. That coupled with the fact that these are all great guys that make you feel part of their family; you just want to see them succeed. It is fun for the whole family and pets! Stop on by and I can guarantee you will be back for more. You can check them out at the following locations:
On the web: http://www.mahoningdit.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahoningdriveintheater/
Or come on over and visit them at: 635 Seneca Rd, Lehighton, PA 18235
Heck if you come by you can have a cookout and some drinks with me!