Under the Stars: The Local Drive-In Scene

By Frederick Jerant

On many clear summer nights, you can tip your head to the skies and watch familiar stars come out: the Big and Little Dippers, Orion’s Belt and the Northern Cross, for example.

But on those same summer nights, even bigger stars come out – in action movies, comedies, sci-fi, horror and drama – all playing on huge silver screens set in vast fields.

Yes…drive-in movies are still around.

So turn off your headlights, put the kids in the back seat (where they can sleep), grab some popcorn at the snack bar, and relax. We’re going to the drive-in!

“Ground zero” for drive-ins is Riverton, NJ. Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. was working as general sales manager for Whiz Auto Products Company, the family business.  Looking for a new opportunity, he envisioned a super-duper gas station, decked out to look like a Hawaiian village. Customers waiting for service could enjoy the proposed on-premises restaurant and free outdoor movies, he reasoned.

He decided instead to simply show movies, and his serious tinkering began. He nailed a movie screen to some trees on his property, placed a projector on the hood of his car and set up a radio behind the screen to test various sound levels. (You can only imagine his neighbors’ reactions!)

After several weeks of experiments, he also devised a system of precisely angled ramps and carefully placed spaces that would permit every driver to have a clear view of the screen.

On August 6, 1932, Hollingshead applied for a patent. Nine months later – the perfect period for “birthing” a major invention – he received U.S. Patent #1,909,537.

With the backing of several investors, Hollingshead opened the nation’s first drive-in theater on June 6, 1933. Located on Admiral Wilson Blvd. in Camden, it featured a 40’ x 50’ screen and space for 400 cars, spread over 250,000 square feet. On opening night, 600 people saw “Wives Beware,” a British-made comedy, and a new era in movie-going had begun.

Hollingshead’s success (reportedly, employees spotted license plates from 43 different states that summer!) spawned many imitators, but the quickest was Wilson Shankweiler, of Orefield, PA. His theater, opened in 1934, was the second drive-in in the U.S., and is the oldest one still operating.

By 1940, there were only 18 drive-ins throughout the country.  But after World War II, the numbers really took off – 155 by 1949; 820 by 1951; and an astounding 3,700 drive-ins just six years later!  Eventually, about 25% of all move theaters in the United States were drive-ins.

There were several reasons for the drive-in’s popularity. You could eat, smoke and talk without disturbing other patrons. The physically challenged avoided narrow aisles. And the privacy of cars was a huge hit.

Those were definitely boom-times, and the Lehigh Valley certainly had its share of drive-ins.

• Seventh St. (Allentown)
• ACE (Bethlehem)
• Airport
• Bath
• Bethlehem
• Boulevard (Allentown)
• Eastern Medina
(between Easton and Bethlehem)
• Route 45 (now Becky’s, Walnutport)
• Shimerville (Emmaus)
• Starlight (Easton)
• Super Skyway (Kuhnsville)
• West End (Allentown)

But times change, and drive-ins began to fade in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Rising studio and rental charges, as well as VCRs, indoor multiplexes, cable and the proliferation of color TV were contributing factors. The land itself became too valuable for summer-only use. Even daylight saving time was a culprit – it delayed outdoor movies by an hour.

Today, fewer than 400 drive-ins remain; that’s about 1.5 percent of theaters. And with the onset of digital projection, that number is likely to drop further.  Fortunately for us, Shankweiler’s and Becky’s are both making the $70,000-per-screen conversion. So if you’re feeling nostalgic – or just want a novel movie experience – cruise over to one of them and pull into a spot.

See you at the concession stand!

Becky’s Drive-In

Movies have been in the Beck family’s blood since 1936, when patriarch William Beck showed free films at Uncle Charlie’s Restaurant in Berlinsville. Some years later, he opened the Route 45 Drive-in on leased property; in 1946, he bought the land where his namesake theater now stands.

Owned since 1982 by Cindy Deppe and her brother Darrell Beck, Becky’s has been updated several times; for example, FM stereo transmission replaced in-car speakers decades ago, and the theater added 33’ x 67’ second screen in 2007. More recently, they put in a new refreshment stand (midway between the screens) and expanded the
restroom facilities.

But it still sports some old-fashioned touches, including pony rides and a “fire engine” (dressed-up garden tractor) that can haul about a dozen kids.

Each June, Becky’s celebrates the opening of Hollingshead’s drive-in with a DJ, fireworks at intermission, moon bounce and snack-bar specials. And the owners plan a dusk-to-dawn marathon during Labor
Day weekend.

Shankweiler’s Drive-In

Paul Geissinger was just a kid when he started working at Shankweiler’s in 1971 as its projectionist. “I expected to be there just a couple of weeks, and then start studying electronics at Ryder Tech. But none of my replacements worked out…so here I am, 42 years later.” Geissinger has co-owned the drive-in with his wife Susan since 1984.

Although its “landlocked” position precludes it from installing a second screen, Shankweiler’s has stayed at the forefront of technical innovation. When 1955’s Hurricane Diane leveled the original “shadow box” screen, it was replaced with the then-new Cinemascope screen. In 1986, it was the first drive-in to implement stereo FM broadcasting (with custom-made equipment), and in 2002 switched to Red L.E.D Spectral © technology for state-of-the-art audio.

It also pioneered “camp-ins” for Cub Scouts: an outdoor movie, and overnight camping in the theater lot. “The idea is catching on,” Geissinger says. “I’ve had inquiries about the concept from all over the U. S.”

And Shankweiler’s is featured prominently in the upcoming documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie.”

Drive-In Memories

Allentown residents Sylvia and Ed Dzema have been drive-in fans for decades. In fact, Sylvia says, their first date took place at the West Side Drive-In (Edwardsville) in 1958!

After moving to the Valley, the Dzemas frequented Shankweiler’s. One night in the ‘70s, she recalls, the mature-themed second-feature was accidentally shown before the “kid picture” – what a surprise for her young children in the station wagon! “To this day, they still tease me about that!” she laughs. Decades later, the family continues to load up the car for movies under the stars at Shankweiler’s.

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When Bob and Carol Bielecki lived in Bath in the late ‘60s, drive-ins “were a great idea for getting out,” she says. Instead of hiring a babysitter, they’d load up with homemade popcorn and coolers full of drinks, and put the kids into their PJs before leaving. “We always got home late, and just wanted to roll the kids straight into bed,” she says. “But they always wanted to play on the swing sets at intermission. I was embarrassed to see them running around outside in their pajamas, but they didn’t care at all.”

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Pennsburg resident Dolores Reifinger grew up in Emmaus, and fondly remembers going to movies at Shankweiler’s, Shimerville and Boulevard Drive-ins.

“My parents were divorced, and mom worked second-shift, so my grandmother and great-aunt were our daytime guardians. Going to the drive-in with mom was a real treat for us,” she recalls.

One Saturday night, the second feature was “Aliens.” Reifinger’s brother had to deliver newspapers early the next morning, and decided to catch some z’s in the back seat. But the movie has plenty of shocking scenes, “and when we’d scream, he’d get startled awake…again and again. He was so tired the next morning that mom and I helped him deliver his newspapers,” she says.

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