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
Drive-In movie theaters have been part of New Hampshire state culture for almost 70 years. Even prior to New Hampshire’s oldest Drive-in theater opening in 1948, drive-in restaurants in New Hampshire were showing films outdoors. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, as the popularity of Drive-in theaters grew across the U.S., the number of New Hampshire drive-ins grew rapidly, reaching double digits, with numerous outdoor theaters spread across the state. As the decades went on, interest in outdoor theaters started to taper off, and many of New Hampshire’s drive-in theaters disappeared. Now only three of the original drive-ins are still in operation, and a total of four remain in the state.
Milford Drive-In Theater
The Milford Drive-In Theater was built in 1958 by a group of local residents. The theater originally opened as a single screen with an 84 foot wooden screen. In the 1960’s the theater was leased to a local couple, and in 1969 the theater was purchased by the Scharmett family, who have run the drive-in ever since, with the exception of a three year period. In 1984 the property was expanded and a second screen was added. The theater has since replaced the wooden screen with a steel screen, and complete renovations have been done on the concession stand, restrooms, and box office. The theater has also been upgraded with digital projection and Dolby Digital Sound. The theater grounds are clean and well maintained, and the snack bar has a wide selection and reasonable prices.
Northern Nights Drive-In
Northern Nights Drive-in is the newest of New Hampshire’s drive-in theaters. Built by owners Annette and Raymond Dubreuil in 2008, Northern Nights theater is in beautiful Lancaster, NH; located in Coos County, in the Great North Woods region. Northern Nights features a single 25 x 50 ft. screen in a beautiful scenic setting, and a snack bar that features homemade foods and all your drive-in favorites. Northern Nights is unique among NH drive-ins in that it offers camping and a movie. For an additional fee you can reserve a site and watch the movies fireside from your campsite. The theater is currently still running 35mm projection, but hopes to convert to digital projection soon. To help with the conversion to digital, they are accepting donations via their PayPal, and have a Kickstarter campaign in the works. The owners also have plans to add an eat-in diner in addition to the snack bar, and hope to eventually add a second screen.
Nestled on the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border, Northfield Drive-In Theater, New Hampshire’s oldest drive-in, was opened in August, 1948 by drive-in pioneer Carl Nilman, who owned numerous drive-in theaters in MA and NH. The original 80 x 54 ft. screen was destroyed by a hurricane in 1951, but was re-built to the same dimensions and is still in use today. In 1967 the theater was sold to the Shakour family who also owned the Keene Drive-in. The theater has been family-run by the Shakour’s ever since. In 1998 the theater was used as a set in the film “The Cider House Rules,” appearing in three scenes in the Academy Award-nominated film. In the spring of 2014 the theater upgraded to digital projection and Dolby Digital Sound. Northfield’s snack bar offers an extensive selection of food and treats. The theater will celebrate it’s 70th anniversary in 2018.
Weirs Drive-In Theater
Opened in 1948 by Harry and Yvonne Gaudet, the Weirs Drive-In Theater was New Hampshire’s second drive-in theater, and is the state’s largest. Located on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee, the outdoor theater has been a favorite destination for both vacationers and locals for decades. In the early days, the theater featured carbon arc projectors, vacuum tube speakers, and a snack bar. The Gaudets ran the theater until spring of 1966, when their daughter Pauline and son-in-law Donald Drouin took over ownership. Other than a brief period, the Drouins owned and operated the drive-in until 1974, when they sold it to Lawrence and Patricia Baldi, who have owned the theater ever since. The Baldis eventually expanded the drive-in by adding a second screen in the mid 80’s, and later added two additional screens, making it New Hampshire’s only four screen drive-in theater. In May of 2015 the Drive-in was put on the market for $2.5 million dollars. Despite being up for sale, the theater remains in full operation, and upgrades are still being made. Mrs. Baldi has plans to convert two of the theaters four 35mm projectors to digital this summer.
A special thanks to Warren Huse from the Laconia Historical and Museum Society for aiding me in my research of the Weirs Drive-In Theater.
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