Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre (© Shankweiler's)Click to enlarge picture

As the oldest continually operating drive-in movie theater in the U.S., Shankweiler's in Orefield, Pa., remains a beacon of summer fun and a working monument to the bygone American pastime of watching movies from cars.

The speaker poles are still standing at Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre in Orefield, Pa., now in its 80th consecutive season. But there's no sound piped through them: no tinny, ringing dialogue, like so many announcements droning out of a high school public address system. That ended long ago — in the 1980s — when drive-ins started broadcasting audio over AM radio frequencies.

Then came crisper FM stereo broadcasts, something Shankweiler's pioneered in 1986 when co-owner Paul Geissinger built the first such broadcast unit for use in a drive-in. That audio is still coming across FM, but now it's from digital files. And after a major renovation this past year, the oldest continually operating drive-in theater in America has been stripped of its analog past and boasts all-digital projection and sound.

The speaker poles are still there, though. They show you where to park, since the lines painted across the field have worn thin over time.

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An industry pioneer, a national institution
Shankweiler's isn't the only drive-in theater still operating in the United States, but its history encompasses the industry it helped pioneer. It was there in the beginning, opening in 1934, just a year after the first drive-in, the appropriately named Drive-In Theatre in Camden, N.J.

Shankweiler's Auto Park, as it was then called, was the nation's second. By the end of the 1930s, there were 18 drive-ins across the country, most on the East Coast, with a third clustered in New England. And while the post-war years of the '40s saw a spike in automotive movie-going, with the total number of drive-in theaters rocketing to some 820 sites, it was the onset of full-blown American car culture that made them a national institution.

By the end of the 1950s, there were nearly 5,000 drive-ins — more than one-third of the number of indoor movie theaters in the country at the time. Theater size ballooned, too. There were drive-ins in Texas and Michigan that accommodated 3,000 cars, and it was common for new facilities to open with space for 1,000 or more vehicles.

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A modest affair
In this brave new world of sprawling lots and multiplying movie screens, Shankweiler's remained a modest affair. It has always served roughly as many cars as it does today: 320 or so with a full house. And where other drive-ins featured three or more screens, Shankweiler's offers one. There are concessions at this Pennsylvania icon, but none of the pony rides, sit-down dinners and miniature golf featured at larger, newer operations.

Geissinger didn't start working at Shankweiler's until the early 1970s, but he recalls how the drive-in experience started to shift in the 1960s. "The van and the station wagon changed a lot of things," he says. "But the biggest change was in the '60s, when car companies added headrests to the seats. Then people in back couldn't see the movie anymore." Customers migrated out to chairs and blankets.

By 1971, when Geissinger started running the projector at Shankweiler's, the drive-in boom was over. Roughly a fifth of the country's theaters had closed, and the worst was yet to come. For Geissinger, who had apprenticed at a pristine 35mm indoor movie theater, the state of Shankweiler's came as a shock. "It was bad news, according to my standards at the time," Geissinger says. "It was clean, but the equipment was ancient, held together by rubber bands. Being a 17-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears projectionist studying to be an electrician, it scared the hell out of me."