Temple grads run 'open-air nostalgia palace' drive-in theater

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The Mahoning Drive-In main entry signage in Lehighton. (Bradley C Bower/For The Inquirer)

The Mahoning Drive-In doesn't require guests to arrive behind the wheel of a vintage DeLorean, but it would certainly be in keeping with the spirit of the place. Entering the drive-in, about 90 minutes from Philly in Lehighton, Pa., can feel a bit like traveling back in time - if not quite to 1947, when the theater was built, then at least to the 1980s, when much of its current programming was produced.

With a longtime projectionist and two former Temple University film students taking over its management this season, the Mahoning Drive-In has been reinvented as an open-air nostalgia palace. While other area drive-ins have made the conversion to digital projection, and typically offer the same current blockbusters playing at the local multiplex, the Mahoning is screening only vintage films on 35mm prints, a format as endangered as the drive-in itself.

On the eve of Independence Day, the Mahoning hosted a triple-feature of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Last Starfighter, and Flash Gordon. The retro program played late into the night against the occasional pop of distant fireworks, interspersed with classic trailers and vintage drive-in animations touting the snack bar or (surely unsafe) in-car space heaters from the days before climate control.

The Universal series continues this weekend, opening tonight with three films by hard-boiled director Don Siegel: Coogan's Bluff starring Clint Eastwood, Charley Varrick, and the 1964 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers. Saturday will feature a night of horror with An American Werewolf in London, Phantasm II, and John Badham's 1979 Dracula starring Frank Langella; Sunday concludes with a double-feature of the original Jurassic Park and Kevin Costner's catastrophic disaster epic Waterworld.

"If you came up in a certain era," said Virgil Cardamone, one-third of the new management team, "your brain is trained to take in that flickering 35mm image. Digital theaters are showing glorified DVDs. I think what we all love about film, and about the drive-in, is that nostalgia appeal. This is a haven for like-minded people - a cinematic Cheers, where everybody knows your name, and you can watch cool movies with your friends."

Projectionist and co-manager Jeff Mattox, 57, began spending his weekends at the Mahoning in 2001, working as a projectionist to supplement his day job managing an Allentown radio station. He returned as manager last year after a three-year hiatus to find a failing drive-in struggling to raise funds to purchase its own digital projection system. Midway through a season's worth of poorly attended first-run superhero and action films, Mattox realized he needed a new direction.

"The lightbulb came on when somebody said to me, 'I like this place because it still looks exactly like it did when I was a kid,' " Mattox explained. "I thought, 'Aha! Restore, don't renovate.' The age is a challenge, from underground power lines that have been buried for 67 years to finding parts for the projectors, but doggone it, we're going to find what we need to keep this place original."

Cardamone, 32, and Matthew McClanahan, 25, met while working for a Berks County winery, but quickly discovered their shared passion for movies. Both had studied film at Temple and Montgomery County Community College and spent short periods in Los Angeles trying to break into the film industry. Their involvement with the Mahoning came about by a movie-worthy happy accident.

McClanahan was driving home from a documentary film shoot last summer when a traffic jam forced him to find an alternative route. He spotted the curved arrow on the marquee of the Mahoning. An interest for both movies and urban exploration implored him to pull over. "My brain immediately flashed: 'Cool! Abandoned drive-in! Maybe I can poke around and take some pictures,' " McClanahan recalled. "Then I read the marquee and realized they were playing first-run movies, and I lost my mind. That detour changed my life."

The trio's first season - and the theater's 68th - opened in late April with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz.

Not all the programming is quite so family-friendly; Philly horror-film presenters at Exhumed Films have become regular partners, with offerings including a weekend of classic zombie films in May. To tie in with Lehighton's annual motorcycle rally, the theater will feature a weekend of '70s biker films Aug. 7 and 8, including Roger Corman's Wild Angels, drive-in hit Born Losers (featuring the first appearance of Billy Jack), and Glory Stompers with Dennis Hopper.

The three managers also have hopes of expanding their programming beyond films, with plans to build a stage for concerts and the possibility of hosting carnivals or fairs. On Aug. 1 and 2, the theater will present its first Drive-In Fest, with 18 area bands (headlined by the deceptively named From Philly, which is not), craft vendors, and screenings of cult classics: The Warriors and Eddie Murphy Raw. In addition, the drive-in regularly offers camping on the grounds, and the trio have plans for a weekend of camp-set horror films and activities.

"We're more than just the staff here," McClanahan said. "We consider a lot of our customers friends now. It's been a joy for me just to hang out with fellow film lovers and enjoy films that you'd never see on the big screen again if it weren't for us. Even a faded print with dust and scratches is a new experience, with little anomalies, but that organic nature is what makes film exciting.

"Everything we play here is significant in that it's historic, much like this place."