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America's Oldest Operating Drive-In

The first drive-in movie theater, built in Camden, N.J., in 1933, is nothing but a memory today. The second, which dates to 1934, lives on in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

Like many drive-ins, Shankweiler's, in Orefield, Pa., is a family-owned and -operated business. Electrical contractor Paul Geissinger and his wife, Susan, bought it in 1985. Mr. Geissinger's first full-time job was projectionist in 1970.

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He still serves in that capacity today, while assuming management duties. The rest of the family, including a son and daughter, works in the concession stand. While their day is done before midnight, Mr. Geissinger must stay until the last feature ends and the 320-car parking lot empties, which means getting home around 1:30 a.m. "You get used to it," he says.

Geissinger figures he makes minimum wage working this second, seasonal job. He and his wife have put a lot of money into the business, partly as a real estate investment and also because of the intrinsic satisfactions of operating "America's oldest" drive-in theater, which is celebrating its 65th season.

A visit to the first New Jersey drive-in inspired hotelier Wilson Shankweiler to follow suit in Orefield, where he converted a walk-in outdoor theater that occupied an old biplane landing field.

Geissinger says that drive-ins changed the motion picture industry during the 1950s and '60s, when, for the first time, studios began producing movies specifically for teen patrons. "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "High School Hellcats" were two such films.

The 1970s and '80s saw struggling drive-ins increasingly book steamy adult movies in desperation. Now, however, drive-ins have come full circle in their emphasis on family entertainment at an affordable price.

This is consistent with the vision Richard Hollingshead Jr., an auto-parts sales manager, had for drive-ins when he invented the concept.

A student of American culture, Mr. Hollingshead saw a need to bring together family moviegoers, the children who attended matinees and the parents who needed baby sitters to slip out on Friday and Saturday evenings. The drive-in allowed dad, in casual clothes, to kick back at the end of the work week with his family in tow and not need to search out a curbside parking spot.

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At Shankweiler's, which is open from April to September, Geissinger estimates that children are occupants of 90 percent of the cars.

With indoor theaters angling for more customers with stadium seating, digital sound, and larger screens, Geissinger wonders what the future holds for drive-ins, especially single-screen venues like Shankweiler's.

"We'd like to grow," Geissinger says, "but we're landlocked," hemmed in by an office building, homes, and a street. "As long as drive-ins are maintained, I think the industry can continue. It really depends on the quality of the motion pictures."

Where To Find Drive-In Info

Drive-In Theaters

* Multifaceted site with addresses, phone numbers, and descriptions of individual drive-ins, arranged by state and country. Also with a link to:

Drive-In Theatre Fan Club

* Information on membership and benefits.

The American Drive-In Movie Theatre

* Based on a new book of the same name, which tells the history of drive-ins (Don and Susan Sanders, Motorbooks International, 160 pp., $29.95).

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