Paul Geissinger was just 17 years old when he started working at Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre in Orefield, Pennsylvania. He hated it at first. He even told his manager he wasn't going to stay long. "I was only gonna give him two weeks – and it's now 2020!" he laughed.
Geissinger and his wife, Susan, ended up running the place, now considered America's oldest operating drive-in.
"We have people that come now with their children that came here as children," Susan said.
"And their grandparents, and their parents!" Paul added. "There's, like, three or four generations."
Shankweiler's opened in 1934, modeled after the very first drive-in that lit up Camden, New Jersey the year before. There were over 4,000 drive-ins across the country in the 1950s. That number's faded away to 305 as of last year.
"Unfortunately, the land was worth more, and it most likely is in a lot of places, worth more than what the drive-in business is worth," Paul said.
It seemed drive-ins were parked only on memory lane … until this year.
Correspondent Nancy Giles asked, "With the pandemic, how has that sort of changed things? Has that revitalized people's interest? You know, we all have to stay distant."
"Well, we have a lot of people that have never been out here before that have been coming out," Susan replied. "For us, it has worked out very, very well. We've truly been very, very fortunate."
These days, because the coronavirus and social distancing shut down nearly all indoor entertainment, going to a drive-in may be just the ticket.
"It's a communal effect without being overly social – I mean, that's what it's all about," said Paul.
What's old is new again. Only drive-ins aren't just off the interstate highways like they used to be. Like this wide-open waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, normally a backdrop for filming blockbusters. Now, the property has been screening blockbusters every night since June.
And in other New York City boroughs, Rooftop Films, a nonprofit used to showing independent movies on rooftops turned to drive-ins after film festivals were cancelled this year.
"Sixty percent of our programming is new, independent films," said artistic director Dan Nuxoll. "And those are the movies that really would have no way to be seen whatsoever if not for what we're doing."
Giles asked, "In a way, it's almost like a really pleasant traffic jam where we can all enjoy a movie while we're jammed in traffic."
"There's usually only a traffic jam right when the movie ends," Nuxoll laughed. "Otherwise, traffic is nice and smooth."
So, get the picture? Drive-ins are back, big time. And they're popping up in all sorts of places – from parking lots in shopping centers, to restaurants where they serve more than just popcorn, to the ocean!
Even the retail giant Wal-Mart put up free films outside 160 of their stores.
And Siree and Ayana Morris, of Newark, New Jersey, saw their chance with an old, demolished baseball stadium … or rather, they saw a need. Ayana told Giles, "I came to my husband and I said, 'Hey, I want to do a pop-up drive-in movie theatre,' and he was like, 'OK.' And I was like, 'This is why I married you!'
"Because of the racial tension, I was getting depressed," said Ayana. "I wanted to be able to create a space that highlights the beauty of black people and give us the opportunity to see something, see a positive image of ourselves."
Now don't project your love of these new pop-ups back at Shankweiler's in Pennsylvania. Paul Geissinger is a bit of a purist: "If you really want to experience a drive-in, go to a real drive-in," he said. "That's just my opinion. Sitting in the middle of a macadam parking lot just doesn't do it for me!"
Many of the pop-ups say they'll stay open after the summer season, even as indoor theaters are slowly returning.
So, who knows – drive-ins might not fade to black after all.
For more info:
- Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre, Orefield, Pa.
- BallyHoo Media, Miami
- Bel Aire Diner, Astoria, N.Y.
- Cinema Drive-Ins
- Skyline Drive-In, New York City
- Kilburn Live
- Newark Moonlight Cinema, Newark, N.J.
- Rooftop Films, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association
- Wal-Mart Drive-In Experience
Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Carol Ross.