With the growing scarcity of 35mm prints and mounting pressure from Hollywood studios to convert to digital projection, most movie theaters across the country have been forced to embrace the digital age and shed their 35mm film projectors for their digital counterparts. But despite this push from Hollywood to abandon film, there are a small handful of independent theaters across the country that are going in the opposite direction.
On the outskirts of the Poconos, in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater is one of the few drive-in theaters in the country keeping 35mm film alive on the big screen outdoors, and preserving the unique and priceless experience of enjoying a classic film under the stars.
The Mahoning Valley Drive-In theater was built in 1947 and opened in 1948. The sizable grounds can accommodate up to a thousand cars, and features a 109 ft. CinemaScope screen, which is the largest on the East coast and second largest in the country. Unlike many drive-ins from the time period, the Mahoning has undergone very few changes over the years so the theater has retained its old school feel. Onsite camping is also available, making the nostalgic experience even more immersive, and elevating the drive-in to a retro-cinema vacation destination.
In 2014 Jeff Mattox, longtime projectionist for the Mahoning, took ownership of the drive-in. At the time the theater was still showing first run movies without much success. Then one night Jeff had a revelation while driving by other local theaters, who were all playing the same movies: he was tired of showing the same films as every other theater, and wanted to do something different.
The rest of the Mahoning team got involved by chance after filmmaker Matt McClanahan discovered the drive-in on the way to a film shoot in July of 2014. Matt called his boss and friend, Virgil Cardamone, a fellow Temple graduate, filmmaker and drive-in enthusiast, and told him about the theater. The two met with Jeff, and after discussing movies and the drive-in’s future, it was clear the three had a common bond: a love for film and drive-in theaters, and a desire to save the Mahoning. Matt and Virgil decided to work with Jeff as partners to help promote and breathe new life into the drive-in.
Jeff and the team ultimately abandoned plans to try and convert the theater to digital projection, and decided to exclusively show retro classics on 35mm film for the 2015 season. In order to accommodate the older 35mm film reels, Mattox converted the theater’s Simplex E7 35mm projectors from a platter delivery system, which became prevalent in the 1970’s, back to an old school reel to reel set up.
Doing things the old fashioned way in the digital age isn’t without it’s own challenges. Being able to locate and lease quality 35mm prints can be difficult, and Hollywood studios are not typically keen on having old movies competing with their new releases, so lease agreements on old films can often be pricey. These factors combined with the cost of shipping films across the country can make showing strictly classics on 35mm film an expensive endeavor.
Mahoning was able to overcome this challenge by developing a partnership with Exhumed Films, a group dedicated to keeping obscure films, B-movies, and classics alive on the big screen. Exhumed Films has helped the Mahoning bring in quality prints of classic and obscure films, and alleviated some of the shipping costs, being located much closer on the East coast.
The drive-in has been host to some amazing double and triple features this summer, with classics like The Wizard of Oz, Shawshank Redemption, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Superman, Batman, and Cool Hand Luke. They have also had a number of theme weekends, including two Universal Studios Weekends, with iconic films like E.T., Flash Gordon, Jurassic Park, An American Werewolf in London, Dracula, and Phantasm II, and an AVCO Embassy Pictures weekend, featuring Escape From New York, Dead and Buried, and Fear No Evil.
In addition to more classic double and triple features lined up in August, the Mahoning team has some great events planned, including a Planet of the Apes marathon weekend, a horror themed camping weekend, and their first ever music festival. There are also plans to add a stage under their CinemaScope screen to facilitate future music performances and special events.
The Mahoning Drive-In offers a unique and unrivaled outdoor cinematic experience to film buffs, nostalgia lovers, and first timers alike. In a world where drive-in theaters are disappearing, technology is being valued over cinematic quality, and the medium of film is being forced into its grave, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater is keeping the 35 millimeter dream alive, for the medium, for the art form, and for all of us.
Mahoning Drive-In Theater
635 Seneca Rd. Lehighton, Pennsylvania 18235