(aka The Drive-In of the Damned)
I’ve seen more shooting stars at the drive-in than anywhere else on earth. Man has always looked to the sky. For eons, the moon has been our ever present companion, and the heavenly landmark that tells us we are Earthbound, in the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge announces we are in San Francisco. There is something awe inspiring about sitting outside, with the stars on the screen competing with the eternal stars in the sky. Drive-in movies combine a primal experience with some of the creature comforts of a more modern life.
You may remember going to these outdoor theaters as a child dressed in pajamas, as you played on the swings and slides that were usually found near the big screen. Or you may recall other memories that include the backseat of the car and steamy windows. For many teenagers, the drive-in was a rite of passage that included illicit bottles of beer and as many friends as you could pack into one vehicle. But your age didn’t matter when it was time to visit the concession stand.
Drive-in movie food is unlike any food you will ever find in some generic multiplex cinema. Drive-in food is packed with personality and a lot of mobility—at least according to the concession stand advertisements traditionally shown during intermission. This food danced, it sang, performed circus acts and was always tasty, satisfying, and refreshing. It constantly reminded you that it was 5 minutes until the start of the show…..now 4…..just 3…..only 2 minutes left—better get those tasty fries now! Make sure you compliment your order with a refreshing soda! You’ll feel satisfied! That is until you attempt to drive away with that metal speaker still hooked over your car window…..
The very first drive-in theater was created in 1932 by Richard Hollingshead when he nailed a screen to some trees in his backyard in Camden, New Jersey. He set a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and placed a radio behind the movie screen. He applied for and received a patent for his invention in 1933. That same year, Hollingshead opened the very first drive-in, on June 6th in Camden, with an investment of $30,000. Admission was 25 cents per car PLUS an additional 25 cents per person. Within 25 years, more than 4,000 drive-ins opened nationwide, with Pennsylvania playing an impressive role in drive-in movie history.
In 1934, Pennsylvania’s first drive-in, and America’s second, was opened in Orefield by a man named Wilson Shankweiler. The Shankweiler Drive-In is still operating today; making it the nation’s oldest continually operating drive-in theater.
In addition to claiming the longest running drive-in, Pennsylvania can also boast about the fact that it had one of the two smallest drive-ins nationwide. The Harmony Drive-In, of Harmony Pennsylvania, could hold no more than 50 cars, just like the other “smallest” contender, the Highway Drive-In located in Bamberg, South Carolina.
During the golden age of Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Era, the late 1950s & early 1960s, it is reported that the state peaked with 180 in operation. Since that time, the number of drive-ins still operating in the state today has declined by more than 80%. The Moonlite Drive-In is one of those casualties.
The Moonlite Drive-In ruins are located at 1190 Shoemaker Ave in West Wyoming, Pennsylvania—or as the locals call it, “the back road” in Swoyersville/Edwardsville. The location could accommodate about 400 cars. Some accounts say that it closed in the late 70s, but I found an ad from 1983 when the price of a carload was $5—which is a $4 increase from their price in 1965! People telling stories about visiting the Moonlite usually mention that the man at the ticket booth would tell them to “KEEP SMILING” as they drove away to watch the show.
Going to the Moonlite Drive-In today feels like visiting the planet earth a few decades after an apocalypse. The landscape is wildly overgrown, even in front of the big screen. The Snack Bar stands in a half-burned down state of decay. The sounds of the movies, racing car engines, and giddy movie-goers have been replaced by screeching birds circling overhead while the tall grass rustles in the breeze. The setting is a desolate reminder of a world that used to be and a time when we had access to the stars, for $5 a carload.
The Abandoned Projection Room—Part of the Concession Stand
Since photographing this location in June 2011, the remaining projector has been removed. When I first learned of the location, there were still two projectors standing in the Moonlite Drive-In Projector Room.