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An American Icon - The Drive-in Movie Theater

By Rebecca Price Janney, Jan 26 2018 03:48PM

Most people associate my love of American history with the 18th century. I write about that era and sometimes even dress up on colonial clothes. When I go to Williamsburg or any colonial venue, I feel right at home, as if I belong.

However, I’m also quite taken with the mid-20th century. So much was happening in America before, during, and after the Second World War. I find the drama, personalities, and various movements compelling. When I read an article in the paper this week about a Lehigh Valley Drive-in Theater, a throwback to that time, I invited people to share their memories.

In 1934, a man named Wilson Shankweiler opened what is, according to the Allentown Morning Call, America’s oldest drive-in theater. The venue in North Whitehall Township has been operating ever since then.

Apparently, Shankweiler’s wasn’t the very first drive-in, though. That distinction belongs to one in Camden, New Jersey, which opened a year earlier, but closed a long time ago. Not far away from Shankweiler’s, in Lehigh Township, the venerable Becky’s Drive-in is also still in operation, distinct in being the oldest one continually operated by the same family.

According to the article I read, the peak of drive-in movies was the late 50s and early 60s, with about 4,000 across the country. Now there are just a little over 300 left.

I shared on Facebook my memories of going to see a Disney movie at Easton’s Starlite Drive-in, when I was allowed to wear my pajamas in public! I also loved how going to the drive-in was an excuse to stay up late--the movies started around dusk, so I wouldn’t get to bed until well after 11 o’clock. Thus, the pajamas.

A lot of people wrote to tell me about their drive-in memories, including another Eastonian who recalled pony rides down by the big screen at the Starlite, along with swings for the kids. Another said a South Carolina drive-in she went to was little more than a mown cow pasture with a ticket booth! One woman recalled seeing a scary movie on a foggy night at a drive-in.

I’d love to hear more drive-in memories. Oh and if you’re so inclined, Shankweiler’s is for sale. Would you want to operate a drive-in?

Drive-In Movie (Public Domain)
Drive-In Movie (Public Domain)
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