It was around 2 p.m. on a Sunday when the grossed-out horror-comedy “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” began playing at Mahoning Drive-In. It was the last screening at Tromadance, an annual showing of low-budget horror and sex comedy produced by Queens-based Troma Movie Studios. Before that evening, about 600 cars had piled up at the drive-in in Lehton, Pa., but by 2 p.m., only die-hards remained. Kevin Schmidt, an extra in the film, was one of them.
He moved from Summit, NJ to Mahoning, and had not seen the film on screen since it was first shown in Jersey City in December 1986. “It’s the only time I can walk 100 miles to see a movie,” said Mr. Schmidt long ago in the evening.
By the time the evening came to an end, it was yet another success for Mahoning, a 72-year-old drive-in theater that had been left dead just seven years earlier. And while the pandemic has helped spark a small-scale revival of the drive-in, it doesn’t quite explain what’s going on at this theater in rural Pennsylvania, an hour south of Scranton.
“Whenever I pass the Mahoning sign and look closer and closer at the giant screen, I feel thrilled,” said Andrew Ramallo, who drives from his home in Rego Park, Queens. His car was one of dozens with out-of-state plates. In fact, he’s made the 100-plus-mile drive from New York to Lehton half a dozen times since 2019. “Like meeting an old friend,” he said, “there’s an overwhelming sense of familiarity.”
Mahoning isn’t the only successful drive-in theater in the area. there is delsey in Vineland, in southern New Jersey, and hi-way in Coxsackie, in upstate New York, but they mostly screen new films that are also showing in indoor theaters. Some New York City drive-ins screen older movies, including horizon More in Greenpoint bell array diner in Astoria. But the movies they show can probably be streamed at home. And they don’t have dedicated spectators willing to travel hundreds of miles to see them.
Movie screenings at Mahoning Drive-In often feel like events. Movies are shown in double and triple features, sandwiched between old (and often bizarre) movie trailers. You can engage in “Exodus from New York” and “Invasion USA”, which are followed by old church commercials (“worship at your church of choice”) or an anti-cable-TV screed (“Don’t pay pay TV”) Play. Monsters in your living room”). It is, in the words of Mr. Schmidt, “a special place”.
Mahoning Drive-In opened in 1949, part of a wave of drive-ins that became popular in America after World War II, first with parents and their young children, and then with teenagers who without asking for any confidentiality. “Most teens didn’t have enough space to go alone,” said drive-in historian John Irving Bloom. “The drive-in was one of those places.”
Mr. Bloom is the author of 11 books, including “Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History”, but he is best known as the redneck TV character Joe Bob Briggs, host of the popular horror movie showcase program “The Last Drive-In”. . (On AMC’s Shudder streaming service). The live episode of Mr Bloom’s show will shoot on July 17 at Mahoning Drive-In. As usual, the films he will present will be astonishing.
According to Mr Bloom, drive-in attendance began to drop as multiplex theaters spread across the country. In the 1970s, many drive-ins survived by showing pornography, and by the 1980s, he said, most drive-in theater owners had sold their land to big-box stores such as Walmart.
Mahoning never went out of business. But as of 2014, attendance was sometimes as low as 10 cars per show. An industrywide shift from film to digital projectors left drive-in owners with a dire choice: either spend $50,000 for a new digital projector, which would allow the theater to show the latest movie studio releases, or the entire Kindly stop showing new movies. Many owners would have either ungratefully put in the money or turned a lump sum—but the drive-in’s longtime projectionist Jeff Mattox did something strange. He bought the place and decided not to change anything.
Much of the open-air theater’s equipment hasn’t changed since its arrival in 2001. Mr Mattox estimated that he only had to change a gear in the theatre’s film projector, which dates back to 1949. Replacing those old workhorses with digital projectors would fundamentally change the Mahoning Drive-In’s character. “It would have ruined the whole drive-in look,” he said.
His faith was contagious.
Two of the drive-in’s enthusiastic volunteer employees, Virgil Cardamon and Matt McClanahan, offered Mr Mattox a solution: drop the newer films and exclusively screen older cult and genre films, instead of all-digital projectors. are shown on print.
Mr Mattox was initially skeptical. Netflix was well on its way to dominance, and several competitors were launching apps as well. Who will come to the drive-in to watch a movie they can stream at home? But he put his faith in keeping things retro.
Mahoning Drive-In’s programming was only fully successful in its first two seasons, but word soon spread about themed shows such as “Bite Night” – a Steven Spielberg double of “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park”. feature. After that, the drive-in’s thousand-car lots began filling up regularly. The nearby Mahoning Inn Motel started filling up with movie fans over the weekend.
Since then, programming has become more eclectic, thanks to suggestions from Harry Guerro, a New Jersey-based film collector who has borrowed many of the drive-in features, shorts, and trailer reels from his considerable collection.
Mr. Guerro, founding member of the Philadelphia Film Programmers Group Exhumed Films, Zombie Fest and Camp Blood, which have become Mahoning Drive-In’s most successful recurring shows.
While it is the party atmosphere that gives Mahoning its unique character, Mr. Guerro said he feels excited by its thriving fan base. He hopes to experiment with more than just old horror movies soon, which he says is unquestionably the biggest draw of Mahoning Drive-In.
Strictly speaking, he is not even an employee. But he is still invested. “I want to give most people the opportunity to experience or re-experience the movies I love on the big screen with like-minded audiences.”
Mr Guerro is not the only one working with Mahoning Drive-In who lives out of state. The theater’s manager, Mark Nelson, regularly travels north of New York City, about two and a half hours from Dobbs Ferry. He started volunteering at the drive-in in 2015 and is now a salaried employee. “I wanted to be a part of this wild, wacky thing,” said Mr. Nelson. “The staff were best friends, and the customers were as passionate about movies as the people who worked there.”
John Demar, a carpenter from Nutley, NJ, works with his wife Cindy at Mahoning Drive-In, though as unpaid volunteers. The duo, who are both 54, have created elaborate costumes, props and sets for taking photos for clients and celebrity guests over the past year. They work closely with an amateur set designer named JT Mills, who has volunteered at Mahoning since 2015.
At this year’s Tromadance, Demars sat on lawn chairs next to a newly renovated drive-in speaker that Mr. Demars found and repaired during antiquities in Detroit. He recalled his first visit to Mahoning Drive-In last year, when he dressed as Willy Wonka and Veruca Salt for the annual opening-night double features, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Were wearing
To celebrate its 35th anniversary, Demers visited Mahoning Drive-in to revisit “The Thing”. This was the first film they saw as a couple.
“You don’t just sit in a car and watch a movie,” said Mr. Demar. “You really become part of the entertainment. You could argue that watching a movie is secondary to being with your friends.” Mrs. Demer agreed, adding that she looked forward to the upcoming Joe Bob Briggs screening. A “major recognition” for the drive-in and its employees.
“Joe Bob’s Jamboree” was in such high demand, in fact, Mr Mattox said, that Ticket Leap, Mahoning Drive-In’s online seller, crashed shortly after tickets were issued for the event. Two of the four evenings of the incident were sold out soon after the website was restored.
When Mr. Bloom will appear as Joe Bob Briggs in Mahoning Drive—this month, it will be his first trip—but he already understands the appeal of outdoor theater. “It’s partly in nostalgia, but it’s also partly because people live on the internet now,” he said. “They make friends on the Internet, but they never meet these friends. So now people go to the drive-ins to meet people they already know.”