America’s Oldest Drive-in Movie Theater Still Draws a Crowd

Posted on: June 27th, 2013 by Lauren Walser 9 Comments

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Shankweiler's in Orefield, Pennsylvania is the oldest drive-in theatre in the country.

It was only supposed to be a temporary gig. Paul Geissinger, a recent high school graduate, agreed to run the projection booth at Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre in Orefield, Pa., for just a couple weeks until the theater’s new owner could find a permanent employee.

Forty-two years later, Geissinger is still there -- except now, he owns the place.

“I remember, I told [the owner] no, I’m not interested in working at a drive-in,” says Geissinger, who, at the time, was enrolled in electronics school. “But I said, fine, I’ll give you two weekends while you find someone else. But after two weeks, he couldn’t find anyone, so I gave him three weeks. Then another week. And I’m still there.”

This April, Geissinger opened up the beloved Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre, the oldest drive-in theater in the country, for its 80th season.

Movie-lover Wilson Shankweiler opened the drive-in -- the first such theater in the state of Pennsylvania -- in April 1934, a year after the first drive-in theater in the country opened in Camden, N.J.

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Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre, a family-owned operation, opened on April 15, 1934. Nearly 300 cars can fit inside the drive-in theater.

For years, people parked their cars on the four-acre lot, passing their summer evenings in the glow of the movie screen.

But in 1955, Hurricane Diane ravaged the East Coast, all but decimating Shankweiler’s. The projection booth was leveled, as was the shadow box screen.

“Basically everything was destroyed, except for the for the entrance archway,” Geissinger says.

It took some convincing, but Wilson Shankweiler, who, by then, was “getting up there in age,” Geissinger says, agreed to rebuild the drive-in and use the opportunity to modernize it. A new CinemaScope screen was added and a new concession stand, box office, and projection booth were built. Shankweiler’s was, once again, back up and running.

But by the time Geissinger joined the theater’s staff in 1971, the theater had again fallen to disrepair.

“I just about had a heart attack [when I walked into the projection room],” he remembers. “It was a disaster. A lot of things were just hanging on by a thread.”

He spent the next several years fixing the equipment, calling on the skills he picked up working in his high school’s audiovisual department.

Finally, in 1984, he and his wife, Susan, were presented with the opportunity to buy the theater, and they took the plunge.

“It was real rough at first,” he says. “Some nights, there were more employees than patrons.”

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Currently, Shankweiler's Drive-in Theater is showing a double-feature of Monster's University and Man of Steel, which Paul Geissinger said drew a large crowd that packed the lot from "fence to fence."

The Geissingers were competing with televisions, VCRs, and, eventually, huge multiplex theaters for customers. But throughout the last three decades, they have slowly been making upgrades to the space, installing the latest audiovisual technology and redoing the floors and heating and cooling systems. They recently celebrated the addition of new digital projection and sound equipment.

Thanks to their efforts, Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre has once more become a popular hangout for Pennsylvanians of all ages during the summer months.

“This past Saturday, we had cars packed in here from fence to fence,” he says.

The Geissinger’s customers are frequently thanking them for putting the money and effort into keeping the theater running. The couple knows the theater would never have survived without the dedication and determination of its previous owners, and they are set on following suit.

“That’s basically what Susan and I are: preservationists,” he says. “We’re committed to preserving America’s oldest drive-in.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

Pop Culture, Restoration

9 Responses

  1. Tammy

    July 1, 2013

    shankweiler’s is the best. we’re glad to have it nearby.

  2. Denham

    July 23, 2013

    There is nothing more American and more iconic of the 50s than the drive-in! We still have one operating in Norwalk, Ohio and there’s a real vintage frozen custard/hamburger shack just a few miles away. I’ve got quite a few memories of summer nights with our parents at the drive-in! Great story!

  3. Mike

    July 23, 2013

    Glad to see there are still Drive-ins.
    Into the Early 1970′s there were 3 Drive-ins
    in Westchester Co. NY, and one in the
    Bronx. All fell to expanding Real Estate Values, and were replaced with Shopping centers and Big Box Stores. We still go to one on Cape Cod, but they had to build a Multiplex next to the Drive-In to stay profitable.
    Hope the Shankweilers remains 4 ever.

  4. Cynthia

    July 23, 2013

    We are fortunate to still have a drive-in theater in the Toledo area, and a few others scattered around Ohio; such wonderful memories from a bygone era!

  5. Steve

    July 23, 2013

    Kudos for the Shankweilers for updating to digital projection. With film prints being phased out in favor of digital, many drive-ins are closing rather than spending the big bucks to upgrade to digital.

  6. Jim G

    July 23, 2013

    We have one that is about 5 yrs old and just added a third screen. Totally digital and packed even in winter.

  7. Todd

    July 23, 2013

    We have the Rustic Tri-View here in RI. 3 Screens in pie-wedge format with a projection booth/concessions stand in the middle – it is great for our family and we often do kid’s birthday parties there. The kids play before the movie starts, the parents set out dinner and treats, the movie plays and we tuck the younger ones in at intermission in the back of the van and the adults and bigger kids watch the 2nd movie! If you park in the right spot – the kids can watch one movie and the adults can watch a different one! You could never do this at a traditional theatre or multiplex!

  8. kathy

    July 24, 2013

    This is great. I had many wonderful memories going to the drive-in during high school in Crystal Lake and McHenry, Illinois. Until just recently, McHenry’s drive in was still in operation. We had 13 kids in a van (all cousins) on one visit and had a blast. It recently closed and will be developed, or so I hear. Another bit of Americana gone.

  9. Gayle

    July 24, 2013

    We have a drive-in in Milford NH which has been in existence forever. My son and his family live in Milford and go to this drive-in every year. He now brings his grandson.