Poconos drive-in theater hoping for a savior

Camden, N.J., is the birthplace of drive-in movies, but there are not many places left in our region where you can take in a film this way.

For those not already done in by the multi-plex, there’s a new threat — digital conversion.

One drive-in in the Poconos is pinning its hopes of survival on a contest.

Carloads of movie goers still pour into the Mahoning Drive-In.  It’s the last one still operating in the Poconos.

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Judy Gradle of North Wales brought her children for their first trip to the drive-in.

“I remember going past one when I was little and I would always see it. And I always wanted to go, but my parents would never take us,” said Gradle. “So now I’m making up for it.”

Gradle and her friend, Danielle Penndel, chatted while buying popcorn and Snowcaps.

“I always thought it was really cool to see old movies and old TV shows, and see and hear my parents talk about going to a drive-in,” said Penndel. “It’s pretty amazing to me that I’m here. I brought my camera, just because I didn’t know what kind of cool pictures I could take and what it was going to look like and everything.”

Today, there are fewer than 400 drive-in theaters across the United States. The Mahoning, outside of Lehighton, in Carbon County, Pa., first opened in 1947. For current operators Mike and Deb Danchak, it’s a labor of love.

“It all started right here when I used to go with my cousin when I was 14 years old, and he used to let me make the changeovers and thread the projector up,” said Mike Danchak. “That was a big thrill for me.” And sometimes I would forget to close the changeover flag and I would changeover, and you could see the numbers on the screen. And he used to give me a boot in the rear.”

Unfortunately for the Mahoning, later this year, studios will stop sending out movies on 35mm film and offer them only on digital formats.

Most indoor theaters have already made the switch, but many drive-in theaters still run film projectors.

The high cost of going digital could cause many to go dark.

For Mike and Deb Danchak, worry has replaced the joy of running the theater.

“We really don’t want to leave it. But if we cannot get digital in here, it’s not going to be our choice,” said Deb Danchak. “Because they’re not going to have film after the end of this year.”

She said the digital equipment alone would cost $85,000 and the projection room must be climate controlled, not the typical drive-in projector shack. 

But the Danchaks and their loyal customers have reason to hope. Project Drive-In is filming a promotional video to raise awareness about this dilemma. Sponsored by Honda Motors, Project Drive-In promotes the nation’s remaining drive-ins and includes a giveaway of five digital projectors. Patrons are encouraged to vote for their favorite drive-in through Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

Mike and Deb look at the contest as a potential lifeline.

“It’s the one thing, the only thing, my husband and I have in common,” said Deb. “We both love the movies — love them. And we just ask people to support us to keep us here.”

Drive-In enthusiast Joe Farrugio is encouraging people to see a movie under the stars while they can.

“I’d say that they haven’t lived yet. And they better get to one soon, because from what I hear a lot of them are going to go dark,” Farrugio said. 

Voting for “Project Drive In” ends September 9.

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