The drive to Orefield, Pennsylvania is rich in mountains, forests, and other scenic beauties that rural Pennsylvania offers. It is also rich in film history, marking a spot where families and friends congregate to watch their favorite flicks. Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theater, located about an hour north of Philadelphia, has been in the business since 1934. It is the oldest drive-in in America, and movie lovers from across the country visit the historical site.
Paul Geissinger and his wife Susan have owned the theater since 1984. From ushering at the Plaza Theater at the Whitehall Mall and spending the majority of his high school years in the audio/visual room, Geissinger has had a passion for film and projection since his youth. In 1971, he was first asked to work as a projectionist at Shankweiler’s.
His prior job at the Plaza Theater got him used to working with state-of-the-art equipment.
“I nearly shit my pants,” Geissinger said, describing his reaction to seeing Shankweiler’s outdated projection technology for the first time. “I thought pigeons were going to fly out.”
As a 17-year-old, he had a talent for film projection, which allowed him to work as the handyman and fixer-upper of all things tech at Shankweiler’s in the 1970s. These skills helped him build and maintain a successful business.
With indoor theaters shut down for the foreseeable future, drive-ins seem to be a safe option for those eager to see a movie.
At Shankweiler’s, viewers are typically either in or directly outside their vehicles, all naturally spaced by radio poles. The layout of a drive-in seems to perfectly meet CDC guidelines, while still offering some summer fun.
Vehicles naturally spaced by the radio poles on July 9, 2020. Viewers have the option to stay in their cars or set up directly on the end of their car to watch the film.
Coronavirus risks at the theater include the brief moment when a customer interacts with a ticket agent, or leaving one’s car to go to the bathroom or concession stand.
Geissinger takes the risks of those actions seriously. “If you’re going to go to the restroom or snack bar, you have to wear a mask,” he said, “I don’t want my employees exposed to it because if one of my employees gets it, everyone gets it, and I don’t want to take that chance.”
To mitigate any spread, all customers receive a COVID Rules pamphlet and signs across the grounds encourage social distancing by listing restrictions on the number of people allowed in the bathrooms and snack shop at a time.
Signs throughout Shankweiler’s instruct customers on protocols and what limitations are in place to ensure their safety.
A young couple, John Buback and Madison Undercuffler, shared their excitement for the drive-in.
“This is way more fun than just sitting in a dark room,” Undercuffler said. “This is way better than watching on Netflix.”
The gorgeous sunsets and perfect summer weather cannot be enjoyed at an indoor theater.
“I hope they make a comeback,” Buback added. “We’ve come here each of the last three weeks!”
The couple said the great selection of both classic and contemporary flicks at Shankweiler’s gives it an advantage over standard indoor theaters.
Dakota Fenstermaker and his friend Garrett Frye also enjoyed a night out in their car.
“I would come here more often than a regular theater because it’s cheaper and you’re more comfortable,” said Fentstermaker, who has been coming to Shankweiler’s his entire life.
Frye actually works in an indoor theater, and he was happy to talk about the safety he feels at Shankweiler’s.
“To be honest with you I would feel more comfortable coming and working here,” he said. “I think it’s going to make a great comeback, especially because a lot of these are local mom and pop shops, I like to support them.”
This was only Frye’s second time at Shankweiler’s since he was a child, but he “definitely” will be back, he said.
Despite the seeming boost in interest and demand, Geissinger explains, the pandemic has not actually been a financial windfall. Many drive-ins, Shankweiler’s included, are actually losing business.
Currently, Geissinger defines a bad night as a “soft sellout.” How many cars he turns away is indicative on how well the show is selling, as he sells out almost every night. The problem with this, he explains is that current Pennsylvania policy only allows him to operate at 50% capacity.
“We’re filling it every weekend, but we still have the same bills,” Geissinger said. “I have some bills to pay and I have some bills to make up.”
He has also had to increase staff to monitor and manage social distancing, help sanitize, and to help customers leave safely after the movie.
“The payroll is actually more because we have to have more people here to get them in and get them out,” he said. “It’s been rough, no if, ands, or buts about it.”
Whether the obvious demand for drive-ins will be sustained after the pandemic is something Geissinger would rather not speculate on. He is a man passionate about movies and projection, and never has focused too much on the business side of drive-ins.
That said, Paul and his wife Susan are looking for their next adventure. Shankwieiler’s is currently up for sale, and the asking price is just over $1 million. Geissinger is ready to call it a career, but for the business to stay open he urges movie-lovers to strictly follow the theater’s rules.
“We’re open because we follow the regulations,” he said.
If viewers can abide by the rules and the business angle of drive-ins can get through the pandemic restrictions, there are beautiful drive-in sunsets in store for film buffs everywhere.
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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