My most vivid memory of a drive-in involves a movie that I didn’t actually see. In the early 1970s, my father and I took a trip to Spelter, WV for the purpose of escorting my grandparents (on Dad’s side) to the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins, a West Virginia celebration that gets underway in the first week of October. The first night of our adventure, the two of us got a bite to eat at the Ellis Restaurant, a little diner located on the Shinnston Pike in nearby Meadowbrook; for many years it was the family “go-to” jernt to take Grandma and Grandpa out for dinner when we visited on Saturdays and/or Sundays. The Ellis is right next to the Sunset Drive-In, an establishment still in operation as of this post, and that night when Dad and I left the restaurant after our meal we returned to his trusty Volkswagen to find…a flat tire.
The Sunset was showing a rather racy adult film (XXX) on its large screen that evening—though I couldn’t tell you the title of it if I underwent hypnosis. All I remember is Dad changing the tire and telling me continually (and sharply): “Stop looking at the screen, Ivan!” (I do remember watching The Odd Couple and Love, American Style once we got back to our motel…so my tender child psyche wasn’t too badly scarred.)
I’ve had a lifelong love affair with drive-ins. At their peak of popularity in the 1950s/1960s, there were an estimated 4,000 of them stretching across this great land of ours…but due to multiple factors (the home entertainment boom, the rise of the multiplex, the spike in real estate interest rates, etc.) they’re becoming more and more scarce with each passing year (a conservative estimate had the number around 300 in 2014). The move toward releasing feature films in digital format has also contributed to the drive-in’s decline; the Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, PA—which has been in operation since April of 1949 (its debut feature was, appropriately enough, 1948’s April Showers)—confronts this digital dilemma when its owner, Jeff Mattox, is unable to afford the $50,000 price tag to upgrade the establishment’s projector.
How Jeff keeps the Mahoning in operation is the subject of At the Drive-In, a 2017 documentary shot, edited, and directed by Alexander Monelli. Jeff befriends two Temple University film students, Matt McClanahan (whose own debut feature, Demon Stone, had its premiere at the Mahoning) and Virgil Cardamone, and makes them partners in a venture that decides to become a “revival” drive-in concentrating on showing 35mm prints of movie classics. Drive-In is a delightful underdog story that chronicles those events in the Mahoning’s 2016 season—featuring a cast of beloved “film geeks” who volunteer their time to maintain what is truly a labor of love.
The volunteers at the Mahoning work for free. Their only compensation is free movies and food from the concession stand (but let’s be honest—drive-in grub is some of the best you’ll ever eat). Their dedication is such that they’ve been known to sleep out in the concession stand (one of their volunteers, Mark Nelson, takes a six-and-a-half-hour trek from New Hampshire to put some hours in whenever it’s showtime…so it’s convenient for him to bed down at his place of employment) and they do it not only because of their passion for movies…but because there’s a sense of community and family in the drive-in venture. (At one point in Drive-In, the Mahoning hosts a wedding for two of their regulars…and the fee that they earn allows McClanahan to do a little creative jury-rigging to address their lack of that fifty-grand digital projector.)
With double-feature bills of such favorites as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Breakfast Club (1985) (the Mahoning kicks off each season with back-to-back showings of The Wizard of Oz  and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ), I can’t help but be a little saddened that I’m no longer kicking around Morgantown (okay, it’s a five-hour trek from there to Lehighton…but Mark can make it, I can’t see why I couldn’t); there are still (thankfully) a handful of drive-ins here in the Peach State (the Starlight in Atlanta is probably the closest) but I’m not sure I could persuade the ‘rents to have a movie fling some night. Besides, most typical drive-in fare consists of recent releases—I’d rather hang at the Mahoning for a good slasher flick or a longtime cult favorite.
Upon its release in 2017, At the Drive-In was a favorite on the film festival circuit: it picked up a trophy as “Best Local Feature” at the Philadelphia Film Festival and has also been screened at the independent fest Dances with Films. Thanks to Clint Weiler at MVD Entertainment, I was able to get a gander at what I believe to be one of the best movies I’ve screened so far this year…and on April 9, you can do the same when the DVD version is released (also from MVD). The disc features 17 minutes of deleted scenes from the film, plus commentary tracks (from director Monelli and the movie’s cast) and a 30-minute Q&A from a screening at one of the Alamo Drafthouses.
I loved every minute of At the Drive-In because it is so passionate about my life’s passion: those flickering images on the silver screen. “Technology moves so fast today, faster than ever before,” observes director Monelli. “As technology distracts us from one another and segments us further into smaller audiences, it was just magical to see a bunch of people gather together in rural Pennsylvania to watch film flicker through a projector from 1948. That’s ultimately what this documentary is about.”