It’s a crisp autumn evening in eastern Pennsylvania and the smell of grease is wafting through the air around a small field. While the concession stand is hard at work grilling burgers, frying mozzarella sticks and popping popcorn, a wide array of automobiles are lining that small field and facing a giant white wall that will soon provide hours of immense enjoyment and nostalgia.
Suddenly, a voice sounds off from several small speakers scattered throughout the area.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Mahoning Drive-In theater, one of the largest and oldest drive-ins in the United States,” the anonymous voice yells.
On this particular night, the Mahoning Drive-In, situated just a little north of Allentown in Lehighton, is showing the first three films in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, as night one of “Freddy Fest” — a two-night Freddy-Krueger-palooza, with six films, raffles and a table featuring apparel and hard to find DVDs for purchase. But fans aren’t coming from all over and donning Krueger’s infamous red and green sweater to watch a regular DVD version. No, they’re getting an experience unlike any in the country.
Drive-In theaters are nothing new. Your parents and grandparents probably spent many Friday and Saturday nights at their local spot but, as with many things, times and technology have changed and the evolution of theaters has caused the drive-in to become obsolete. In the late 1950s, more than 20 years after Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. opened the first drive-in in New Jersey, there were about 4,000 drive-ins littered throughout the country. Now, there’s less than 330, with many fighting just to stay open.
The Mahoning Drive-In isn’t like the others still remaining, however, focusing more on the past than the present. Opened in 1948, the establishment fell on hard times back in 2012 when the film industry transitioned to digital film and the drive-in struggled to purchase the necessary digital film equipment, which would’ve cost right around $100,000, so the theater decided to simply go retro. Every weekend, the Mahoning Drive-In exclusively shows 35mm films of the blockbusters and B-movies that helped keep it going for some many decades — it’s the only drive-in in the country to do so. And it does so on the original projector.
With a bevy of car radios and transistor radios tuned to the same radio station, the 110-foot wall lights up with 1950s commercials for the concession stand and the goodies that come with it. Once the countdown is complete, several retro trailers hit the screen. Given this particular night’s attraction, classic trailers of Wes Craven’s many efforts are shown, at the end of each intermission, prior to the next film.
There are a couple hundred vehicles parked, including a few campers and even a smaller school bus, in honor of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Some vehicles face towards the screen while others are backwards, with the hatch open and pillow and blankets strewn throughout the back. Fans are encouraged to spend the weekend, in like a festival-like atmosphere, where they can put up tents and camp during the day until the second night of films begins. Dogs are allowed too, so Fido tag along with you. The tickets for this particular night of three films was $10 a person, with an additional fee if you wish to spend the evening.
The Mahoning continues to make waves not just in the area but in the filmmaking community, with features on several local news stations and even a 2017 documentary from Alexander Monelli, a filmmaker from Lancaster, called At The Drive-In. The film, which won a number of awards including best local feature at the Philadelphia Film Festival and Best Film at the SOMA Film Festival, is currently available on iTunes.
Fans are encouraged to suggest potential double features on the Mahoning’s website and they’ll do their best to make it happen. Much of the films are owned by the theater and it borrows others from movie studios. The season ends with October, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for a Back To The Future weekend sometime during next season.