People set up inside and outside of their cars for a movie showing at Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre. This drive-in is the oldest drive-in in America. (Courtesy of Matthew McClanahan)

Local drive-in faces complications with 90th anniversary celebration


Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre opened in Orefield, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1934. It was the second drive-in constructed in the country, and today, it’s the oldest operating drive-in theater in the world.

Ninety years after its opening, Shankweiler’s’ new owners, Matthew McClanahan and Lauren McChesney, took the historic theater across its milestone anniversary.

The anniversary celebration took place on Sunday, April 14 and included many homages to the theater’s history.

In addition to showing film favorites “Twister” and “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” McClanahan and McChesney created a day-long celebration full of activities, fun and surprises for visitors of all ages.

To appreciate Shankweiler’s origins, the theater hosted a reenactment of its original drive-in setup with a screen hung between two poles. It also partnered with the Envy Center for American Automotive Heritage to bring some of its antique cars from the 1920s and ‘30s to the theater. Their local Wegmans even donated a birthday cake for the celebration.

McClanahan and McChesney are especially proud of their community-based partnerships. They recruited local vendors including face painters, a magician and County Seats Spirits, a local distillery, as a pop-up for customers over 21 years old.

In return, the Lehigh Valley community has reciprocated the support. The Lehigh Valley Press and local and regional government officials were all on the list of planned attendees.

Organizing the celebration, however, came with its own challenges.

As Saturday is generally a very popular day for the theater, McClanahan and McChesney originally planned the celebration for Saturday, April 13.

This all changed when, a week before the anniversary, a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was announced to be hosted less than a mile away from the theater. This news led McClanahan and McChesney to rearrange all of their plans for the celebration.

Luckily, with support from their customers and the community vendors, the owners were able to switch the event to Sunday without any major hiccups.

“We actually owe (the transition) to our customers,” McClanahan said. “We found out on a weekend (that) all public offices were closed, so we couldn’t reach anybody to actually figure out what this meant for the theater.”

Due to the road closures and traffic caused by the Trump rally, McClanahan said there was no way the celebration could happen as planned. Customers simply wouldn’t be able to make it to the theater.

“As far as how this impacts us overall, it’s a huge challenge,” McClanahan said. “We are new owners of a historic theater, and we’re coming out of a long and difficult winter. When stuff like this happens, it really is a challenge for us to pivot and make sure the event is successful.”

Being forced to close on a Saturday was also a huge blow to the business. As a drive-in movie theater in the spring, McClanahan said Saturday is their primary revenue day.

With nowhere else to turn, McClanahan and McChesney took to social media to find a way forward.

“We reached out to our audience, and we just let them know, frankly, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening. We don’t know what to do. What are your thoughts on this?’” McClanahan said. “We actually got a lot of very helpful feedback that gave us the ability to make an informed decision fast.”

McChesney said they were fortunate many people still seemed willing to come to the celebrations knowing the context of the situation.

As an independent, historic drive-in, Shankweiler’s has had to navigate its share of other challenges. The film industry is coming off of the SAG-AFTRA strike, and the owners are constantly negotiating to get access to films to play at the theater.

However, McClanahan sees the theater’s independence as its asset.

“Hollywood is starting to look at independents because we’re spry, we’re adaptable, we’re creative,” McClanahan said. “We provide an excellent experience, and that is something I think a lot of people are starting to notice, which is very exciting. At your neighborhood cinema, there’s no better place to see a movie.”

What makes the theater stand out is its ability to innovate and add flare to a regular movie showing. When Shankweiler’s screened “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” McClanahan and McChesney built a special slime box display that customers could stand in with ectoplasmic ooze around it.

Similarly, for last summer’s box office hit, “Barbie,” they recreated the iconic Barbie doll box. Even if it’s just a new menu item or decoration, Shankweiler’s offers a special experience for customers every time they come to the theater.

“Because it’s just the two of us and we’re together all the time and hang out all the time, sometimes we just get ideas and we’re like, ‘Hey, this would be a weird thing we could do,’” McChesney said. “And then we just do it.”

These novelties are not overlooked by dedicated Shankweiler’s customers, like Christina Tatu, who has been a regular at the theater since 2015.

“It’s like the quintessential summer activity,” Tatu said. “There’s definitely something special about watching a movie outside under the stars.”

Tatu echoed McClanahan and McChesney’s sentiments that it’s important to help keep this piece of history alive. Drive-in theaters originated in the United States, and McChesney believes it’s the responsibility of everyone who cares about drive-ins to preserve the history and contribute to the Shankweiler’s further survival.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find drive-in theaters, and I feel like it definitely offers an experience that you won’t get by going to your regular mall movie theater,” Tatu said.

Tatu said that is exactly why it’s so important to support something unique, like what McClanahan and McChesney have with Shankweiler’s, whenever possible.

“It’s a rollercoaster,” McClanahan said. “There is so much joy and stress in the theater world. It’s been a journey to be the new stewards of this historic theater and a huge honor for us.  We’re breathing new life into drive-ins, into the industry and into this theater and taking it into the modern era while preserving the historic elements that make it special.”

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