Screen time under the stars
Drive-in theaters continue to bring summer smiles
By Michael T. Crawford
Developed during the Great Depression, drive-in theaters have long embodied the notion that, even in uncertain times, there’s always something to smile about.
The first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey in June 1933 and accommodated up to 400 vehicles, according to the 2010 study, “The rise and decline of drive-in cinemas in the United States,” by Mark Fox and Grant Black. Developed by Richard Hollingshead Jr., the drive-in theater took advantage of what he believed were the last three things people would give up in a bad economy — food, automobiles and movies. Nearly a year later, the Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre — the oldest operational drive-in theater in the United States — opened in Orefield, Pa. Within 10 years, 50 more drive-in theaters had opened in Pennsylvania. The state’s drive-in total peaked in the late 1950s with more than 180 theaters, but as televisions in the home became more commonplace, drive-in theaters began to shutter.
DRIVE-IN DEVOTEES: Bill and Barb Frankhouser, members of DuBois-based United Electric Cooperative and owners of the Super 322 Drive-In Theatre in Woodland, stand in front of the theater’s more than 3,800-square-foot screen. (Photo courtesy of Super 322 Drive-In Theatre)
According to DriveInMovie.com, launched in 1998 to raise awareness of drive-in theaters, the Commonwealth today is home to 27 operational drive-in theaters, second in the nation only to New York with 28. Since the 1990s, 10 new drive-in theaters have opened in the Keystone State.
“Drive-ins offer an inexpensive, family friendly, outdoor activity that everyone can enjoy,” says Nick Hensgen, owner and operator of DriveInMovie.com since 2017. “Some people visit drive-ins for the nostalgia of their youth, but many others enjoy bringing their friends and family to an outdoor activity where they can watch a great movie while still being able to socialize with friends and family, unlike in indoor theaters.”
New drive-ins are still popping up. In 2020, Bedford Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) donated materials and labor to assist in the construction of Silver Lining Drive-In at the Bedford County Fairgrounds. The project — a partnership between local businesses, the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce and the fairground — aimed to provide a community attraction that wouldn’t be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
TICKETS, PLEASE: The ticket booth of the Super 322 Drive-In Theatre in Woodland waits for guests to arrive for a double feature. Tickets cost $8 for adults and $4 for children under 12 (free for under 3). (Photo courtesy Super 322 Drive-In Theatre)
“I wasn’t able to think of a good reason to say no to that,” jokes Brooks Shoemaker, general manager & CEO of Bedford REC, which held its annual meeting at the drive-in this year. “(Bedford REC member Kellie Goodman Shaffer, president/CEO of the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce) was proposing something that would make people be able to get out of their homes in a safe fashion and get outside and feel a little bit normal again.”
Projects like the Silver Lining Drive-In — which features a 2,800-square-foot screen and can host up to 300 cars — embody the cooperative principle of Concern for Community.
“We exist to help the community,” Shoemaker says. “It was clearly something that benefited the entire community. It was a good opportunity for us, and we were happy to assist.”
A focus on community over profit tends to be the key factor in a long life for drive-ins.
EAGER TO RETURN: The Super 322 Drive-In Theatre in Woodland invites guests to return in warmer weather. The theater opened for its 2021 season April 30. (Photo courtesy of Super 322 Drive-In Theatre)
“Many drive-ins that have been around for a long time are family owned and operated,” Hensgen says. “We see owners running drive-ins into their 70s and 80s because they love the experience, and they love that they can provide a fun activity for their communities. Many times we will see drive-ins that barely break even monetarily, but the owners keep them going for their communities.”
In Woodland, Pa., the Super 322 Drive-In Theatre has stood for more than 70 years, held together by the love of its community. Bill and Barb Frankhouser, members of DuBois-based United Electric Cooperative, have shown the drive-in their love as patrons, employees, and now owners, sharing a bond with the theater that has gone on for more than 40 years.
“The drive-in experience is just a whole different thing,” says Barb Frankhouser, secretary/treasurer of the Super 322 Drive-In Theatre. “Once it gets in your blood, you’re hooked.”
Bill Frankhouser, president of the Super 322 Drive-In Theatre, grew up in the theater business. His father, a union projectionist, trained Bill while he was working in various in-door theaters as a teenager. After running the projectors at several theaters in Altoona and State College, he found his way to the Midway Drive-In Theatre in Mifflintown in 1973 to help rebuild after Hurricane Agnes struck the year prior.
Several years later, the owner of the Midway Drive-In purchased the Super 322 from a company that had gone bankrupt, recalls Bill, a founding member of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Needing a projectionist and someone to work the ticket booth, the previous owner hired Bill and Barb. Over the course of more than 20 years, the former owner gently encouraged the Frankhousers to buy the drive-in.
“We’d always say that if he sold it to anyone else we’d still be working here,” Bill recalls. “So he said, ‘Why not buy it,’ and that’s what we did.”
CONCERN FOR COMMUNITY: Bedford REC donated materials and labor to assist in the construction of a new drive-in movie theater screen at the Bedford County Fairgrounds. The project was completed in cooperation with the fairgrounds, the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce and local businesses. (Photo courtesy of the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce)
Since taking ownership in 2001, the Frankhousers have invested every dollar they’ve earned from the drive-in back into the theater, which offers a more than 3,800-square-foot screen. The retired couple has restored one of the original pink neon signs, replaced the ticket booth and, in 2014, installed a digital projector. Bill’s final act as a film projectionist was captured in “Changeover,” a 2014 documentary on the Super 322’s transition from 35mm film to digital presentation.
While the past year didn’t bring a boom of business — the Frankhousers report their sales were down 60%, though still better than the 80% suffered by indoor theaters — 2020 reminded the public that drive-ins still can bring smiles.
“This past year when drive-ins were the only entertainment venues open due to COVID-19, I talked to a lot of people going for the first time that simply did not know drive-ins were still around,” Hensgen says. “Many people assume they are gone and a thing of the past. I am hoping that during the pandemic, people who had never been to a drive-in were introduced to them for the first time, and people who hadn’t been in decades were re-introduced to them, and they will love the experience and continue to come.”
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