America’s Oldest Drive-In Is in the Lehigh Valley. Here’s How the New Owners Are Celebrating its 89th Birthday.

Lauren McChesney and Matthew McClanahan, the new owners of Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre in Orefield, Lehigh County. (Photo: Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre)

By Patrick Berkery

April 12, 2023

In an era when many people are content to watch streaming movies from the comfort of their couch, an Allentown couple wants to preserve the unique cinematic experience Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre has offered since 1934.

As millions were packing multi-screen cinemas across the country last weekend to see “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” movie-goers in the Lehigh Valley were treated to a much different experience watching Mario and Luigi on the big screen.

Instead of saving seats in a packed theater, eating pricey snacks, and sitting through endless previews, those who saw the animated film based on the popular Nintendo franchise at Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Orefield watched it from the nostalgic location of their cars, while enjoying food and drinks from local vendors, and those old-timey animated videos of dancing hot dogs and hamburgers visiting the snack bar.

A shared love for drive-in movies is what inspired Allentown couple Lauren McChesney and Matthew McClanahan last year to purchase Shankweiler’s, America’s oldest continually operating drive-in theater. As just the fourth owners in the theater’s 89-year history, the couple are running one of the 28 remaining drive-ins in Pennsylvania, and one of only approximately 320 drive-in theaters still in operation nationally, according to DriveInMovie.com

With many people content to watch streaming movies from their couch, the couple felt an urgency to act when they learned Shankweiler’s was up for sale, or risk losing the unique drive-in experience in the Lehigh Valley.   

“We were very nervous it was going to become a gas station or a warehouse because that’s what seems to happen with everything,” McChesney said. “We decided to figure out how to buy it. We’re not wealthy land investors. We’re not real estate people. We’re just normal people who love drive-in movies.”

A Love for Drive-Ins

Growing up in Harleysville in Montgomery County, McClanahan, 33, would often take the 40-minute trip to see films at Shankweiler’s with his family. That early love for film and drive-ins stayed with him. McClanahan eventually earned a film degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, and spent time working at different drive-ins before starting his own company, Moving Picture Cinema, running pop-up drive-ins and other outdoor movie experiences in the Philadelphia area.

Once McClanahan and McChesney began dating, they would take road trips to drive-ins like Moon Township’s Dependable Drive-In Theater, all the while wishing they could own one of their own. When they learned Paul and Susan Geissinger were selling Shankweiler’s after owning it for 40 years, the couple figured out a way to purchase the theater—a nine-month process McChensey said involved “a lot of negotiations, a lot of financing discussions, and a lot of lawyers.”

America's Oldest Drive-In Is in the Lehigh Valley. Here's How the New Owners Are Celebrating its 89th Birthday.
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre sign in Orefield, Lehigh County. (Photo: Shankweiler’s)

Upon closing on the sale in November, the couple immediately opened up for the winter season and found out—thanks to a viral TikTok video featuring their new purchase—that the appetite for a drive-in theater in the Lehigh Valley was greater than they had anticipated.

“We were really nervous at first,” said McChensey, 38, who left her career as a social worker after the couple purchased Shankweiler’s. “Some days we had a huge crowd, some days we only had a couple cars. Then we bizarrely went viral on TikTok, and we started getting regulars coming from the two cities that we’re located between, New York and Philadelphia. We’re in a great location, just a straight shot off a highway from both cities. That’s definitely been one of the biggest surprises so far—how many people came out over the winter.”

Another Year Older, and Looking Ahead

Shankweiler’s will celebrate its 89th birthday on Saturday—89 years to the day the drive-in screened its first film. Festivities include a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, caricature artists, magicians, birthday cake, and, of course, movies. Starting Thursday, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” runs at 8 p.m., followed by “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” at 9:45.

Going forward, McCheseney said Shankweiler’s would like to program a combination of first-run and repertory films, based on what’s available to run. Among all the things she’s had to learn on the job, navigating the ins and outs of programming has been the most eye-opening experience.

“Sometimes there are barriers with movie studios and certain kinds of licensing requirements that prevent us from running what we’d like to,” McChesney said. “It’s been more challenging than we expected. I was surprised by how little time theaters have until they find out what movies they have to show. There are so many moving pieces that go into it. And release dates sometimes change at the last minute.”

McChesney and McClanahan plan to keep the theater operating year-round, and partner with local food and ice cream trucks, breweries, distilleries, and vineyards. Their main objective is to create a movie experience you just can’t get from a metroplex or streaming service. 

“We feel strongly about having diverse programming and interesting things for everyone,” McChesney said. “We want to make it more of an experience, something that people will want to come to even if they aren’t interested in a particular movie.”

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