Okay Hollywooders, this isn’t your average Monday at the Movies article. Today we’re taking you deep into the heart of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Bring a blanket and a radio… we’re going to a drive-in!
But we’re not just going to any drive-in theater, mind you. No, today we’re going to the Mahoning! You might be thinking “Okay, what’s so special about this place?” Well… Honestly? Just about everything.
The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania is a hidden treasure that has developed a devoted, dare I say, a disciple-like community of cult and classic cinema fanatics, film buffs, and eclectic moviegoers of all kinds.
Upon driving through the Mahoning’s front gates, one can’t help but feel like they’re being transported to a simpler time. In fact, the drive-in looks remarkably similar to how it did upon its grand opening, way back in 1949. Even the two Simplex E-7 projectors in the projection booth are original, faithfully projecting 35mm film reels onto the massive Cinemascope screen (the largest in the state, according to the Mahoning’s website) every summer since the theater’s opening. Crazy, right?
Actually, this is one of the few remaining drive-in theaters that ONLY projects in 35mm film, meaning that audiences won’t be able to catch the newest Hollywood releases here, but rather a programming schedule of classics and cult favorites. For fans of the Mahoning, this is hardly a problem.
“This is what happens: People tell other people about the experience here. It isn’t just watching a movie,” Sandy Eckard, the Mahoning’s Merchandising Manager, tells me while standing outside of the snack bar. “You can go to a movie theater and watch a movie. You can even go to other drive-ins and watch something like Fast 9. And that’s a great experience. But this is not that experience.”
“Here, I always say that the movies can be secondary. You’re coming for the experience and to have fun,” says the Mahoning’s film curator and publicity director, Virgil Cardamone. Fans and regulars of the theater know Virgil for his infectious laugh and for constantly working to accommodate requests for films to show in 35mm.
However, recently Virgil’s role at the Mahoning Drive-In took on a new element: that of a community organizer.
What do you mean they “saved the Mahoning?”
If you’re a fan of underdog stories, you’re going to love this one!
Two weeks ago, the Mahoning’s Virgil Cardamone took to social media to inform followers and fans that the property on which the Mahoning sits had been optioned to Greenskies Clean Energy LLC, with plans to destroy the theater, and its 72 years of history, and erect a solar farm in its place.
“I know this sounds dire. It’s heartbreaking for a lot of you guys. But know that the fight is just beginning to save the place that we all love,” Cardamone declared while wiping tears from his eyes. “The fight now falls on us to prove to the township zoning board that there is no place for a solar panel farm here at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater.”
And guess what… a mere and remarkable 24 hours later Cadramone was back on social media with another video. informing the Mahoning community that their groundswell of efforts had WORKED! The Mahoning Drive-In would remain standing!
Not only had Cardamone’s call-to-action video gone viral, but members of the Mahoning Drive-In community and fan base had inundated the township zoning board and Greenskies Clean Energy with an overwhelming barrage of impassioned emails, letters, and voicemails (so much so that the solar company had to temporarily disable their voicemail system.)
“This community is stronger and more powerful than you know,” Cardamone declared, with a Cheshire cat-sized smile conveying his shock, amazement, and gratitude.
“I just got off the phone with the president of Greenskies solar. They’re backing out 100 percent on the project. They’re abandoning the project, guys! … You guys made this happen… This doesn’t happen! Just know that. This was a huge contract with a lot of money put into it. And Greenskies, out of the good of their heart, decided this is way too important to the community. This is way too important to the culture. And you guys let them know that.”
Again, Cardamone was wiping tears from his cheeks, this time tears of relief, of exhaustion, and of joy.
In a twist that sounds more like the plot of a film than real life, The Mahoning Drive-In Theater had been saved.
The rally to save the Mahoning Drive-In Theater that had been planned for the evening of Monday, August 2nd could now be transformed into a celebration of the community’s victory. The free event is now completely sold out.
“When we had the talk about ‘What’s the worst-case scenario?’ they were like ‘Well, we’ll always find another spot,” The Mahoning’s merch goddess, Sandy Eckard told me, her eyes welling up with tears. “This is a family. And we don’t break up the family.” Sandy took a deep, relieved sigh. “But now we don’t have to worry about that,” she declared sweetly, before looking around at the place she considers her home-away-from-home.
Special edition “We saved the Mahoning” t-shirts and posters will be available at this evening’s victory celebration and the stage will be open to all members of the community to share their stories and experiences with the drive-in. After the sun sets, a surprise triple-feature of underdog films will be screened for patrons, fans, and Mahoning-heads to enjoy. There is no doubt that the event will be a victorious and triumphant celebration for all in attendance.
This tight-knit community, and the drive-in that they all consider their ‘shelter from the storm’ will remain standing for years to come.
Where is the Mahoning Drive-In?
The Mahoning Drive-In is in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, a 90-minute drive north from Philadelphia and just over two hours east of New York City. Fans of The Office will appreciate that it is just under an hour from Scranton.
The Mahoning Drive-In also allows camping, so visitors can use the drive-in as their home base for the weekend. Weekend passes are sold, which allows movie fans to venture to nearby Pocono attractions like the historic town of Jim Thorpe, Camelbeach waterpark, or Big Pocono State Park during the day, before returning to catch another evening of film and fun.
Cars with out-of-state license plates are plentiful, indicating just how popular this drive-in is among out-of-towners. For many, distance is hardly a prohibitive factor.
“We have locals that come. But honestly, people come from all over,” the Mahoning’s general manager, Mark Nelson, tells me. “We have a person who’s come out multiple times this weekend from Salt Lake City. Which is a huge compliment to this place.”
“This is a special place. You don’t just drive four, five, 15 hours if it isn’t,”, I am told by front-row regular, Darryl Rabideau of Albany, NY. “Somebody today drove all the way from Michigan if you can believe it.”
Rabideau himself makes the 3.5-hour trek from Albany on a regular basis. “I hit my 100th film in May. 100 movies over the course of five or six years. I had a lot of spare time this summer so I’m going to hit 150 by the end of this weekend.” (you go, Darryl! We love to see it!)
Mark Nelson overheard our conversation and chimes in. “That’s how I started here actually. I’d get here early because I was coming from so far. And I’d tell the guys at the snack bar ‘I’m gonna be here anyway. Can I help with anything?’ Eventually, they let me help. I started at the ticket booth, then I ended up running the cash register at the snack bar for years. And now I’m the general manager.”
What’s the vibe?
Like a music festival where everybody knows each other and everyone is welcome. Seriously. All are welcome. Everyone is happy to be there, and it’s one of those rare places where, when you’re there very little else matters.
“It’s like an infectious feeling being here, you know? We feel like a community,” says Mike Kenny of Westfield, New Jersey, a regular at the Mahoning Drive-In. “We’re all friends but it’s like the idea that people are coming to see movies and you get here and it’s almost like you’re walking onto a set or something and it just adds to the environment. Once they walk away from it they say, ‘we’re coming back next week.’”
Although film screenings begin shortly after sundown, the lot is already buzzing with activity by early evening. As patrons are preparing their camp chairs or movie viewing setups, live pre-show DJ sets are being broadcast from a booth in the projection room (affectionately referred to as “the 35”), the vintage snack bar is abuzz with social greetings and movie talk. Very often, visitors can find elaborate installations for photo ops corresponding to the films being shown, skillfully created by the Mahoning’s resident production manager, JT Mills. The photo ops are always free and add an interactive cosplay element for fans of the films who feel inclined to dress up (although there’s no pressure to do so!)
“This place embraces people,” Mills tells me earnestly. “This place is home to people who are devoted fans of whatever franchise we’re doing to come out and show off how much they love whatever we’re showing. Which is really cool. Even Clueless sold out!”
My trip to the Mahoning
I made the 90-minute trip up to Lehighton on Friday evening from my family’s home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A bucolic drive up the back roads adjacent to the Delaware River prefaced my visit, with Joni Mitchell’s greatest hits scoring my journey. After driving through the main drag of Lehighton (passing WalMarts, strip malls, and a plethora of fast-food restaurants), I saw the famous Mahoning Drive-In sign and took a right onto Seneca Road, where the Mahoning is located a few miles out of town.
It was the first night of “Schlock-o-Rama”, a three-day, 10 film event showcasing obscure sci-fi and horror movies. That evening, the Mahoning would be screening a quadruple feature, beginning around 9:30 pm, with an anticipated finish of around 4 am.
Upon pulling up to the Mahoning’s gate, I was greeted by friendly ticket-takers who enthusiastically radioed the rest of the staff to let them know I’d arrived. The front row of cars before the mammoth Cinemascope screen was already occupied with regulars and die-hards, some of whom had even decorated their cars and themselves for the event, displaying their fidelity to the genre and the venue.
Upon parking, I was greeted at my car by the Mahoning’s production manager, JT Mills. “You must be the writer. Let me show you around,” JT told me before giving me a lay of the land, taking me through the projection booth, and introducing me to the rest of the staff who was milling around the snack bar.
The enthusiasm was infectious, among the staff and visitors alike. Regulars kept coming up to me (donned in Mahoning merch), telling me just how much the place meant to them.
It was hard not to notice just how varied and eclectic the crowd there was. Not only was it evident that there were people there from all walks of life, but entire families were there, often with toddlers and dogs in tow. The pre-show hours had somewhat of a tail-gating vibe. Everyone was co-mingling and chatting, and I was glad to see that strangers had no problems striking up conversations, or jumping in on existing chats about all things cinema.
“People they experience a kinship here and a community,” general manager Mark Nelson told me while standing with a few regulars. “People who are not social people repeatedly have told us that they feel really comfortable here. Much like The Blob, they get absorbed into these circles of people standing around.”
After sundown, once everyone had gotten their popcorn and settled themselves, the projector lit up and a short film of the Three Stooges began as a preface for the evening. The Mahoning’s assistant projectionist, Rob Humanick, masterfully operated the theater’s twin projectors, all the while explaining the process to me as he readied old-school trailers that he selected himself to correspond with that evening’s programming.
It was a rare quadruple-feature night, although each feature film was just over 60 minutes each. There were roughly 30-minute intermissions between each feature, where in-house DJs would broadcast to the cars, the snack bar would swell, and the merch tent sold apparel and Mahoning-themed souvenirs of all price points. I was shocked to see just how affordable the concessions and the merchandise were. It was a breath of fresh air to see T-shirts being sold for $20 and popcorn for $5. Not only did it feel like I had gone back in time, but the price points also reflected that feeling. While the Mahoning could have charged double for any number of items being sold, it was clear that this was not that kind of place.
“I try to capitalize on the community’s loyalty without gauging anybody,” Sandy Eckard told me in front of the merch tent.
Like most of the staff at the Mahoning Drive-In, Sandy, who is an English professor at a nearby university, began as a frequent patron. Eventually, she began volunteering (“I’d be there anyway,” she tells me with a good-natured laugh), and she soon found herself manning the merch booth, where visitors can purchase souvenirs and memorabilia ranging from the obligatory hat or sticker, to night lights, wall clocks, apparel, and posters. Many of the items are designed by local artists especially for a particular event (a recent t-shirt from David Lynch fest immediately caught my eye.) There are also frequent raffles where visitors can win a curated bundle of goodies that coincide with that evening’s programming.
What you should know before you go?
If you’re planning a pilgrimage to the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, prepare to have fun! Bring lawn chairs and blankets for your car-camping setup. Don’t forget bug spray and radio to play the film’s audio. While you can play the sound from your car’s radio, it might drain your battery (especially in a triple or quadruple feature), so a battery-powered radio is recommended. (Although, not to fear, if your car battery does die, the Mahoning has “jump commandos” with cables to sort you out.
All tickets are $10. Children under 4 are free. The snack bar has a wide selection of food options and accommodates vegetarian and vegan visitors with numerous options. Often, there are weekly food specials that coincide with the weekend’s programming.
If it’s your first time, don’t forget to turn your headlights off once the movies begin, and please be respectful of those in cars around you by keeping your voice down and your revelries contained.
The Mahoning’s website has a very helpful FAQ section that will help you to prepare for your visit. The theater’s events regularly occur on Tuesday evenings, as well as every weekend, and the Mahoning’s season runs from early April through the end of October.
If you make the trip, tell the staff that Hollywood.com sent you. I guarantee you’ll receive a warm welcome and immediately feel like part of the Mahoning family.
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