Rich Howells

Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton saved from demolition after outpouring of online support

Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton saved from demolition after outpouring of online support
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Joe Bob Briggs often says, “The drive in will never die,” and today, he is more right than ever before.

As the cult film critic, television host, and well-known drive-in supporter prepares to kick off his inaugural Joe Bob’s Jamboree this weekend at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, the historic Lehighton venue is celebrating a personal victory right out of a classic movie.

After leasing the business for decades, they were informed by a public notice that the landowner was going to sell everything to a big energy company that planned to demolish the 72-year-old screen and build a solar farm in its place, so a ragtag group of film fans banded together to plan zoning board protests and run a social media campaign that, in just over a day, convinced both parties to back out of the agreement and ultimately sell the property to the Mahoning.

Virgil Cardamone, a partner of the Mahoning as well as its film booker, curator, and publicity director, initially uploaded an emotional video to the drive-in’s website and social media explaining the situation with Greenskies Clean Energy with tears in his eyes on Tuesday evening. By Thursday afternoon, after “the craziest 24 hours of my life,” he followed up with another video to thank their supporters and deliver some much better news, this time with tears of joy.

“The amount of love and support that has come pouring in from every single angle and area of the globe has been beyond heartwarming for myself, for the team here, and for what we stand for,” he began.

“The Mahoning and its future seem more secure than it ever has in all my years here and I think beyond. You guys made this happen. This doesn’t happen, just know that. This was a huge contract with a lot of money put into it and Greenskies, out of the good of their heart, decided this is way too important to the community. This is way too important to the culture, and you guys let them know that. They saw the video. They saw everything. They got everything that you sent to them to the point that they are walking away from a humongous investment for them for the good of our future – our future. This is forever. The drive-in will never die. The Mahoning will never die – you guys just proved that to the world.”

He also clarified that Greenskies are not the villains in this story, as they went into the contract under the impression that the theater “was not doing well.” Cardamone encouraged everyone to turn around and thank them for their help and noted that the planned zoning board hearing on the matter is now canceled.

“The landowner of the Mahoning Drive-in Theater site and the management of the theater have entered into discussions for a longterm solution that will allow the theater to continue operations. Greenskies is pleased to have helped facilitate these discussions. Greenskies has decided to stop all further development activities for a solar facility at the theater site and will not pursue the project further. Greenskies will also withdraw its application for zoning relief to the Mahoning Township,” Greenskies said in a statement today.

“The outpouring of support from the local community and cinephiles near and far has demonstrated the unique value the Mahoning Drive-In represents. Greenskies is proud to have played a part in helping preserve a celebrated business like the Mahoning Drive-In Theater.”

This dramatic tale serves as the perfect sequel to the underdog story told in the acclaimed documentary “At the Drive-In” that chronicled the Mahoning’s struggle to stay in business in the modern era and earned them fans around the world. That loyal following certainly played a role in this quick turn of events.

“This is the power of the drive-in. If anybody wants to question if the drive-in has a future, you point them at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater and you tell them this story. This is legend,” Cardamone said. “You literally could not script this story. It is unreal.”

The Mahoning Drive-In opened in 1949 and has a 1,000-vehicle capacity. It still uses the same twin Simplex E-7 projectors from those early days to show films on its massive Cinemacope screen, the largest in the state and one of the biggest in the country. While other theaters converted to digital projection, the Mahoning continues to screen classic and cult movies on 35mm film, often hosting themed events where fans can not only see the movies the way they were meant to be seen, but also meet actors, filmmakers, and other celebrity guests invited to this small rural community.

Director Alexander Monelli, a Clarks Summit native and Abington Heights High School graduate currently living and making documentaries in Lancaster, captured the original story of the Mahoning in the 2017 documentary “At the Drive-In,” and on the NEPA Scene Podcast, Cardamone talked about how much he and his friends enjoyed making a movie “that is forever our calling card.”

“We were very open. It was a plus that we hit it off with Al, the director. … It was very easy for us to open up to him and really share our hearts,” he said during the podcast live stream.

“For those who have seen it, it’s a very personal story. It’s a very uplifting story, one of those things where there’s something universal about following your dream. There’s something universal about preserving your past. What we do at the Mahoning is a portal to the past, and the embrace from the fan base has been really breathtaking. We’ve been lucky enough, now that it’s making the festival rounds, [to go] around the country with this thing.”

He also noted that the film has also helped the theater reach new audiences and attract even more fans from around North America.

“It’s really just a series of dreams come true now where it’s like this thing has just lifted us up and just taken us off,” Cardamone emphasized. “It’s a destination spot. We always say we’re like a comic con every weekend. It’s an immersive atmosphere. We don’t just play retro movies.”

Learn more about running the Mahoning Drive-In Theater and the making of the documentary in Episode 74 of the NEPA Scene Podcast with Virgil Cardamone and FilmBuffOnline editor Rich Drees, who was the first critic to review the film:

Photo of Virgil Cardamone courtesy of Alexander Monelli