Shankweiler’s Next Generation: Meet the New Owners of America’s Oldest Drive-in

Courtesy of Shankweiler's

Located in Orefield, PA, Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre has held the distinction of being America’s oldest operating drive-in for most of its history—stretching back to well before the drive-in heyday. When Shankweiler’s opened its gates on April 15, 1934 it was the first drive-in in Pennsylvania and only the second drive-in built in America. Prominent hotel owner and businessman Wilson Shankweiler visited that earlier drive-in—built by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey—and decided to bring the idea home to PA. Hollingshead’s invention didn’t last long, and by 1940 America’s first drive-in was already gone. Shankweiler’s, on the other hand, has managed to weather many a storm over the years (including an actual hurricane) to remain a treasure for local moviegoers well into the 21st century.

Shankweiler’s owner/operators Lauren McChesney and Matt McClanahan had long hoped to eventually operate a drive-in, but they didn’t anticipate purchasing one—especially one with such historic significance as Shankweiler’s. The theater, located just ten minutes from their home, had been on the market for six years, but given its hefty price tag, purchasing the historic venue hadn’t been on their radar. In 2022, after Shankweiler’s and its uncertain future was profiled on the local news, McClanahan and his business partner McChesney made the decision to purchase the theater under their existing mobile movie theater business The Moving Picture Company.

Matt McClanahan’s journey in exhibition began on the production side, with a filmmaking degree and numerous independent productions and documentary features, through which he was first introduced to the exhibition side of the industry. Helping revive a drive-in theater in 2014 [Lehighton, PA’s Mahoning, profiled in our January 2024 issue] helped him discover his passion, and in 2019 he co-founded the mobile pop-up The Moving Picture Company, hosting revival house screenings at breweries, wineries, and other small venues. When the pandemic hit, he had little time to adjust, moving from small in-person events to 200-car drive-in screenings in a matter of months. The work snowballed into a full-time exhibition company, with partner Lauren McChesney working behind the scenes, simultaneously serving as a hospital social worker. Shortly thereafter, McChesney left the healthcare industry to pursue exhibition full-time, helping to develop the company’s business plan. During the height of the pandemic, McClanahan and McChesney partnered with indoor theaters for mobile screenings, eventually providing the duo with the opportunity to purchase Shankweiler’s. 

As the new owner/operators of Shankweiler’s, McClanahan and McChesney are only the fourth set of owners in the theater’s nearly 90-year history. In 1959, founder Wilson Shankweiler sold the theater to friend Bob Malkemis, who owned the drive-in until 1984, when it was sold to Paul and Susan Geissinger. After operating the venue for nearly 40 years, the Geissingers sold the theater to McClanahan and McChesney. As Shankweiler’s prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary this year, Boxoffice Pro spoke with the theater’s newest generation of owner/operators—a pair to whom the space means a lot more than just a business.

What are the origins of Shankweiler’s? How did this then-new form of exhibition make its way to Pennsylvania?

Matt McClanahan: Shankweiler’s is a great example of something that has grown and changed a lot over the years. When it first opened, it was two telephone poles and a sheet. It was a very bare-bones start. Wilson Shankweiler owned a hotel with a baseball diamond behind it. He saw the drive-in in Camden, NJ and wanted to open his own, so he just repurposed that field and put a screen up. And that was it. A lot of the first features that played at Shankweiler’s were maybe less-than-official screenings. We’re probably not going to find any booking records for those.

What discoveries have you made about the theater since purchasing it?

Matt McClanahan: One of the few artifacts that was left over at the theater after we acquired it was an old sound horn that we found in storage. We dated it back to the mid-’30s; it was one of the original sound horns that the theater used. This was before drive-in speaker poles, because when Shankweiler’s was built, none of that infrastructure existed. It was nothing more than a big sound driver and a huge horn that they hung under the screen to shoot sound across the lot. To my knowledge, I think it’s the oldest surviving piece of drive-in infrastructure that still exists.

Lauren McChesney: We hung it in our office. It’s probably about three or four feet [long]. We get excited when we find things. Every once in a while, we’ll get a comment on our Facebook or in an email that’s like, “I’m Wilson Shankweiler’s great, great granddaughter.” Or “I grew up there, and now I’m 98 years old.” It’s really neat everytime you learn something new about the history or the mythology around it.

Matt McClanahan: That’s the thing with a lot of these old places—separating the myth from the actual history. It can get difficult sometimes. Especially when you don’t have a lot physically there to reference. It’s always exciting when someone brings a physical artifact from the theater’s past to us. It gives a tangible element to something that’s only been a story for us. It’s happening more and more frequently, which is very exciting. 

It was also one of the first drive-ins to have car speakers and speaker poles.

Matt McClanahan: We got the poles in 1948, right before the big boom. The 1950s were really where the explosion happened with the popularity of drive-ins, but they had been around before that. A lot of the drive-ins here in Pennsylvania are a little bit older and were built in the late ‘40s. We’re around New Jersey, so we’re kind of near that epicenter.

Do you think that early adoption is why Pennsylvania maintains such a strong drive-in culture?

Matt McClanahan: The people of Pennsylvania love routine and tradition. Drive-ins have been able to hold on by virtue of everybody taking their families and continuing those practices for years and years. We also have large rural areas which have permitted these theaters to continue existing. It’s changing a little bit now with everything building up so rapidly in our area. Shankweiler’s is in a residential area, so maybe it’s survived by virtue of being less than convenient to develop.

In 1955, Hurricane Diane paved the way–literally–for a CinemaScope screen, less than two years after the release of the first CinemaScope film in 1953. That was also when the snack bar, restrooms, and new projection room were constructed.

Matt McClanahan: It was a blessing in disguise, maybe. Shankweiler’s has always managed to stay on the cusp in terms of technology for drive-ins. It was one of the first drive-ins to implement FM broadcasting to bring stereo sound to cars. It was also an early adopter of digital. It’s always kind of been lockstep with the industry as far as where the technology is going.

One unique element of Shankweiler’s is that you keep the drive-in open year round.

Matt McClanahan: It’s unique now in the context of drive-ins, but historically, not so much. Even here in Pennsylvania, many of the drive-ins around us were originally year-round. When these drive-ins were built, owner/operators had a mortgage and had to sustain their business. A lot of that meant they needed a cash flow year-round. We’re in that boat. We purchased this theater, so we have a mortgage and we need to keep cash flow going all year to sustain ourselves.

Lauren McChesney: That’s the trend we’re seeing with other new owner/operators. Everyone refers to the winter as the dark time, because all the drive-ins are closed and there’s nothing to do, nowhere to go. We always thought it would be so cool if we had a drive-in that was open that we could go to [all year-round], and it’s also partly something that we as customers would have wanted. We know that there are other people who wish drive-ins were open through the winter. And they’re coming, so that’s exciting.

Matt McClanahan: Out in the Midwest, we see that phenomenon a lot, too, in areas where they get far more snow than we do. That’s what we’re working on, making this a normal thing. We want winter to roll around and people to think, “The drive-in is open. Let’s see what they’re playing.” We really pushed this year to communicate that. There’s a period of the summer where we are open seven days a week and it’s wild and crazy, but we’re always here.

What are some of the other initiatives that you’re implementing? 

Lauren McChesney: We’re trying to be a much larger presence by participating in community events and getting involved with a lot of different groups. We partner with local charities and businesses.

Matt McClanahan: Also, the movies we play have changed. Shankweiler’s has always [screened] first-run movies, and [now] we’re a mix of first-run films and classics, which is a very tricky thing to do with one screen. But we pull it off. We want to make sure that every show we put on has intention and thought behind it. We’re not just going to play a movie because it’s new. We’ll play a movie if people want to see it, if we want to see it, but it’s got to be something that deserves to be on the screen.

Lauren McChesney: We want it to be something special and memorable, so we put a lot of thought into which movies we’re going to play. Or we’ll add an extra element to make it something special, like getting an ice cream truck or a brewery to come. We did holiday matinees all through December, and because the sun sets so early, we were able to start the movies at five. We showed The Polar Express and gave everyone a little bell and ticket. It was just a tiny gesture, but it made everyone really happy.

What are the joys of operating a drive-in theater?

Lauren McChesney: For me, I love that people come in happy and that they’re having a memorable and exciting experience. It’s a special place that some people come to on a weekly basis, but for [other] people, this is a huge experience for them. We love being part of that and being able to make it special for them. That makes me very happy.

Matt McClanahan: Shankweiler’s is in a unique position [in terms of] where it is physically. It’s convenient to a lot of cities and a lot of other communities. We get a lot of people for whom this is their first drive-in experience. They discovered us on social media or they read about us in an article, and they’re visiting us for the first time. They’re just enamored by the whole experience, and that’s what we love to see. We love to introduce people to something that is new, that is exciting, and watch that catch on again. It’s extremely rewarding.

And the challenges?

Lauren McChesney: As our needs change, there’s also new technologies, so we have to start adapting these businesses to grow with all of that. We had to redo our whole business model and rethink the way that things are run so that we can make [the theater] more profitable and keep it open for decades to come.

Matt McClanahan: Drive-ins are absolutely a viable business in terms of generating an income and revenue stream. I would argue that they might even be better positioned than an indoor theater, in terms of their profitability. You can do a lot of daytime activities when you’re not running movies, [and] they’re also adaptable to world events. Pandemics! We can weather the storms. They’re an industry born in the Great Depression, so there’s a lot of things that make drive-ins resilient.

The biggest thing with drive-ins now is really just the upfront costs. A lot of drive-ins exist in up-and-coming commercial districts, areas that are now getting built up. For drive-ins that once existed in a rural setting, it’s not so rural anymore, and land values are all creeping up. The cost of the physical land that the theater sits on, more often than not, prices out the value of the business sitting on it. When we purchased this theater, we had to redefine what kind of business was being run, because the one that was here couldn’t sustain the bills that we pay.

A lot of the difficulties that the overall [drive-in] industry is facing are not so much that drive-ins are struggling, but that current owners don’t have a succession plan. For a lot of owners, this is a nest egg. They work their theater for 40-50 years, then they’re ready to retire and they’ll sell it to the highest bidder. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the theater continues as a theater, especially when you have builders with deeper pockets buying these increasingly valued commercial properties. I think the biggest hurdle for the continuation of drive-ins is the previous generation’s willingness to work with the next generation to carry them on.

What does the future hold for drive-in theaters?

Lauren McChesney: Drive-ins are movie theaters, so we experience a lot of the same challenges that any other movie theater experiences, whether it’s the availability of new movies to show or accessibility of older movies. It’s all the same things that everyone is always dealing with. As the industry goes through challenges, we’re going to experience those things, too. I think drive-ins are well-positioned. We’re set up for events and to make movies something special. That’s really becoming the trend, especially after Barbie and Taylor Swift, with theaters really trying to eventize. That’s something that drive-ins have always naturally done. We’re very hopeful; we see a lot of drive-ins being saved by people, being reopened, or being newly built. We see a lot of people coming up with innovative ways to bring movies to people. We’re really excited to follow along and see how all this grows.

Matt McClanahan: I think the most exciting thing about the future of drive-ins is how many younger people are coming into this field that are passionate about them and about this kind of exhibition. They’re coming into this with a brand new perspective of ways to innovate and ways to change how the business operates by taking a 90-year-old model and making it new. That’s what we’re doing; we’re taking something that has been a staple in this area for nearly a century and we’re making it a new experience. We’re getting a lot of people who live here locally that are just now discovering it for the first time. That’s exciting. It’s not just a business anymore. It’s a very special place.

How are you planning to celebrate Shankweiler’s 90th anniversary?

Lauren McChesney: I’m hoping to partner with some historical societies in our area and try to make it an event that really celebrates how far this drive-in has come and how much it’s been through over the years, along with where we are today.

Matt McClanahan: Any long standing institution is marked by how it’s evolved. What we want to do is really celebrate all the big steps that this theater has taken over the years, because it’s gone through quite a few milestones and a lot of trials. It’s exciting to be here and celebrate its longevity and its story.

Do you have any favorite movie moments at Shankweiler’s in your role as owner/operators?

Matt McClanahan: We played A Christmas Story last year. At the end when Ralphie is sleeping, it pans up to the window and it’s snowing. A snow squall came through right at that scene. I was sitting in the production booth seeing it all happen. Everyone who was on the field is never going to forget that night. We’re forging core memories here.

Courtesy of Shankweiler's