The Schlock horror drive-in that rose from the grave

It was around 2am on a Sunday when the gross horror comedy “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” started playing in the Mahoning drive-in. This was the last showing on TromaDance, an annual showing of low budget horror and sex comedies produced by the Troma film studio in Queens. By early evening in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, about 600 cars had piled up in the drive-in theater, but by 2 a.m. only the stubborn were left. Kevin Schmidt, an extra in the film, was among them.

He had driven to Mahoning from Summit, NJ and had not seen the film since it was first shown in Jersey City in December 1986. “This is the only time I can justify going 100 miles to see a movie. “Said Mr. Schmidt much earlier in the evening.

When the evening ended, it was another hit for the Mahoning, a 72-year-old drive-in theater that was only thought dead seven years ago. And while the pandemic helped revive the small-scale drive-in theater, it doesn’t fully explain what’s going on at that theater in rural Pennsylvania an hour south of Scranton.

“I get a sense of excitement every time I drive past the Mahoning sign and see the giant screen get closer,” said Andrew Ramallo, who was driving from his home in Rego Park, Queens. His car was one of dozen with license plates outside of the state. In fact, he’s made the 100-plus-mile drive from New York to Lehighton half a dozen times since 2019. “Like visiting an old friend,” he said, “there’s an overwhelming sense of familiarity.”

The Mahoning isn’t the only successful drive-in theater in the area. There’s Delsea in Vineland, in southern New Jersey, and Hi-Way in Coxsackie, upstate New York, but they mostly show new films that are also shown in indoor theaters. Some New York drive-in theaters show older films, including the Skyline in Greenpoint and the Bel Aire Diner in Astoria. But the films they show can likely be streamed at home. And they don’t have a loyal audience willing to travel hundreds of miles to see them.

Screenings in the Mahoning Drive-In often feel like events. Movies are shown in dual and triple functions, sandwiched between older (and often bizarre) movie trailers. You could watch “Escape From New York” and “Invasion USA” following old church advertisements (“Worship in the church of your choice”) or an anti-cable TV screed (“Don’t let pay TV be the monster in your living room ”). It is, in the words of Mr. Schmidt, “a special place”.

The Mahoning Drive-In opened in 1949 and was part of a wave of drive-ins that became popular in the United States after World War II, first with parents and their young children, then with teenagers looking for unsupervised privacy. “Most teenagers haven’t had many places to be alone,” said John Irving Bloom, a drive-in historian. “The drive-in theater was one of those places.”

Mr. Bloom is the author of 11 books, including Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History, but better known as Redneck TV character Joe Bob Briggs, who hosts the popular horror movie showcase program The Last Drive-In . “(On AMC’s Shudder streaming service). Mr. Blooms Show will film a live episode on July 17th at the Mahoning Drive-In. The films he presents will, as always, be a surprise.

According to Bloom, the number of drive-in theaters declined as multiplex theaters spread across the country. In the 1970s, many drive-in theaters survived by showing pornography, and by the 1980s, he said, most drive-in theater owners would have sold their land to big stores like Walmart.

The Mahoning never went out of business. But by 2014 attendance levels were sometimes only 10 cars per show. An industry-wide switch from film to digital projectors left drive-in owners spoiled for choice: either spend $ 50,000 on a new digital projector that would allow the cinema to show the latest film studio releases, or the screening completely discontinue new films. Many owners would have either reluctantly put up the money or pooled it directly – but Jeff Mattox, the longtime presenter of the drive-in theater, did something strange. He bought the house and decided not to change anything.

Much of the equipment in the open-air theater has not changed since it arrived in 2001. Mr. Mattox estimates that having to replace only one cog in the theater’s film projectors dating back to 1949 would change the fundamental nature of the Mahoning drive-in. “It would have ruined the whole drive-through look,” he said.

His belief was contagious.

Two of the drive-in’s enthusiastic volunteers, Virgil Cardamone and Matt McClanahan, provided Mr. Mattox with a solution: forego the new films and only show older cult and genre films, all of which are shown on film copies rather than digital projectors.

Mr. Mattox was initially skeptical. Netflix was well on its way to dominance, and a number of competitors were launching apps as well. Who would come to a drive-in theater to see a movie they could stream at home? But he trusted to keep things retro.

The programming of the Mahoning drive-in was only sporadically successful in the first two seasons, but themed programs like “Bite Night” soon spread – a Steven Spielberg dual function of “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park”. After that, the drive-in theater’s thousand-car parking lot filled up regularly. The nearby Mahoning Inn Motel filled with movie fans on the weekends.

Since then, programming has gotten more eclectic thanks to suggestions from Harry Guerro, a New Jersey film collector who has lent drive-in movies many features, short films, and trailer roles from its sizeable collection.

Mr. Guerro, a founding member of the Philadelphia film programmer group, Exhumed Films, suggested themed screenings such as Zombie Fest and Camp Blood, which have become some of the Mahoning Drive-in’s most successful recurring events.

Although it’s the party atmosphere that gives the Mahoning its unique character, Mr Guerro said he was encouraged by its thriving fan base. He hopes to experiment more soon by showing more than just older horror films, which he thinks are undoubtedly the biggest draw on the Mahoning drive-in.

Strictly speaking, he’s not even an employee. But he still invested. “Above all, I want to give people the opportunity to experience films that I love on the big screen with like-minded audiences, or to experience them anew.”

Mr. Guerro isn’t the only one working with the Mahoning Drive-In who lives outside the state. The theater’s director, Mark Nelson, regularly commutes about two and a half hours from Dobbs Ferry north of New York City. He started volunteering at the drive-in in 2015 and is now a paid employee. “I wanted to be a part of this wild, crazy thing,” said Nelson. “The employees were best friends and the customers were just as crazy about films as the people who work there.”

John Demmer, a carpenter from Nutley, NJ, works with his wife, Cindy, at the Mahoning Drive-In, albeit as an unpaid volunteer. The two, both 54 years old, have been building elaborate costumes, props and sets for customers and celebrity guests to take photos of since last year. You work closely with an amateur set designer named JT Mills, who has been volunteering at Mahoning since 2015.

At this year’s TromaDance, the Demmers sat in garden chairs next to a newly renovated drive-in loudspeaker that Mr. Demmer had found and repaired at the antique shop in Detroit. They fondly remembered their first visit to the Mahoning Drive-In last year when they dressed up as Willy Wonka and Veruca Salt for the annual opening double game “The Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.

To celebrate their 35th anniversary, the Demmers visited the Mahoning Drive-In to watch “The Thing” again. It was the first movie they’d seen as a couple.

“You don’t just sit in the car and watch the film,” says Demmer. “You actually become part of the conversation. You could argue that seeing the movie is secondary when you’re there with your friends. ”Ms. Demmer agreed, saying she was looking forward to the upcoming Joe Bob Briggs screenings – a“ great tribute ”to the drive-in and his Employee.

Demand for “Joe Bob’s Jamboree” was so great that Ticket Leap, the online seller of the Mahoning Drive-in, crashed shortly after the tickets for the event were released. Two of the four evenings of the event sold out immediately after the site was restored.

If Mr. Bloom shows up at Mahoning Drive-In as Joe Bob Briggs this month, it will be his first visit, but he already understands the appeal of outdoor theater. “It’s partly nostalgia, but partly because people are now online,” he said. “You make friends on the Internet, but you never meet those friends. So now people go to the drive-in to meet people they already know. “

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