In 1933, while traveling home from summer vacation, Wilson Shankweiler passed by the nation's first drive-in movie theater, which had just opened in Camden, N.J.
Inspired by the idea, when Shankweiler returned home to North Whitehall Township, he went to work on converting the four acres of land he owned behind his Shankweiler's Hotel in Orefield.
The next year, Shankweiler's Drive-In opened as the first drive-in movie theater of its kind in Pennsylvania and the second in the nation.
Today, Shankweiler's is the oldest drive-in theater in America.
Through the years, as retail moguls and housing developers swooped in to gobble up land that hosted drive-ins, the industry began to shrivel. Meanwhile, movie-goers wanted better sound and pictures, further thinning the number of drive-ins since many used old technology and never upgraded to satisfy their consumers.
In order for the remaining drive-ins such as Shankweiler's to survive, it required investing money, time and training to transition through the technological demands and changes in the industry.
“I felt obligated to keep this place going,” said Paul Geissinger, 62, who has worked at Shankweiler's since he was 17 and has co-owned it with his wife, Susan, for nearly 25 years. “I fell in love with the place.”
While operating Shankweiler's Hotel, Wilson Shankweiler originally used the land behind it as a walk-in theater, with a sheet and a 16-millimeter projector to show movies to hotel guests.
Not knowing much about how to build and run a drive-in theater, Shankweiler turned to close friend Al Moffa, who owned several Allentown theaters and who collected projectors and parts. Once Moffa gave his friend the knowledge and tools, Shankweiler's effort soared.
“He did everything himself,” Geissinger said of Shankweiler.
In 1958, after owning the drive-in for nearly 25 years, Shankweiler rented it to Moffa. The next year, Shankweiler sold it to Moffa's manager, Bob Malkemis.
In 1983, Malkemis' health was failing. Before his death in 1984, Malkemis asked Geissinger, an electrician by trade, to buy the drive-in and keep it going. That year, Geissinger and his wife bought the drive-in and operated it as a second job and as a hobby.
In the 30 years that the Geissingers have owned Shankweiler's, they have invested $650,000 in improvements, $150,000 three years ago to convert the theater to digital.
“It's been a labor of love,” Paul Geissinger said.
According to Geissinger, Shankweiler's did relatively well in the 1970s and 1980s with second-run movies, but when the 1990s came around, the industry picked up steam.
It was then that indoor movie theaters were becoming smaller, going from 1,200 seats to 300, with multiple screens for each movie.
With smaller theaters and more screens, indoor theaters were able to provide their customers with dozens more showing times in a day, which meant films were in and out of the theater in two weeks. This made the new, first-run movies accessible to drive-ins in two weeks rather than the six weeks they were accustomed to waiting.
“I have to thank indoor multiplex theaters with the success of drive-ins,” Geissinger said. “That's what saved drive-ins.”
Becky's Drive-In Theatre in Walnutport and The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton are the closest drive-ins to Shankweiler's. Although the three might be competing in the same industry, the theaters support one another and share ideas and problem-solving via the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. Geissinger, the association's financial secretary and treasurer, was at one time its president.
He also is the association's digital cinema committee co-chair and organizes and attends meetings with digital cinema and server manufacturers.
“We got [digital] packages together to make a deal a little cheaper, and made it available to members and nonmembers,” Geissinger said. “We helped all the drive-ins survive.”
The association has an online networking discussion board and publishes a newsletter for its nearly 200 drive-in theater members.
“We all have the same issues,” Geissinger said. “We all have the same common interests.”
Geissinger also took additional training to prepare for the switch to digital. He traveled to Virginia for three weekends to become certified as a digital server technician.
He also visited the projector manufacturer in California, where he obtained an installer and service certification.
Prior to the digital conversion, Geissinger could take an entire projector apart and put it back together, including replacing of parts.
But digital is much different.
“It's nothing more than computers,” he said.
Although it was an expensive proposition, it had to be done, according to Geissinger.
“We did what we had to do to make it for our industry,” he said.
For Linda Haraske of Schnecksville, it's the nostalgia of the drive-in that brings her back again and again.
“I have fond memories of being a child again,” she said.
Haraske has been frequenting Shankweiler's since she was a child and said she looks forward to making new drive-in memories with her grandchildren.
“It's a special togetherness for the family,” Haraske said. “It's magical.”
For Fernando Cracha, who lives outside of Philadelphia, he and his Lancaster girlfriend traveled quite a distance to check out Shankweiler's for the first time.
“It's like nostalgia,” Cracha said. “There are no drive-ins around anymore. Finding one is like a needle in a haystack.”
Sally Reichard has worked at Shankweiler's for nearly nine years and said she enjoys working for the Geissingers and seeing different people each night. Reichard is one of 22 part-time employees at the drive-in.
“It feels great,” Reichard said. “You get to see a lot of different families and kids.
“And now I can bring my grandkids here.”
Shankweiler's is a seasonal business, open from mid-April until Labor Day. In the summer, it opens every night, and in the spring and fall on weekends. Geissinger said he is looking at remaining open through September.
He also consulted with an architect and engineer about expanding the snack stand to install deep-fat fryers and an area to make pizzas. But, the return on investment didn't pan out, according to Geissinger, as it would have cost $150,000 for the expansion.
“I wasn't going to expand for a seasonal business,” he said.
Geissinger is, however, on a waiting list to have satellite service installed to increase the access and selection of movies.
“I feel good every day,” he said. “Wilson and Bob are watching over us, and I think they would be really proud of what we have done to keep it going.”