Rich Howells

Planned solar farm threatens to ‘demolish’ historic Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton

Planned solar farm threatens to ‘demolish’ historic Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton
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Over the past year, drive-in theaters went from rare relics of a bygone era to essential venues for entertainment and social gatherings, providing safe ways to enjoy movies, live music, graduations, and other events during the pandemic and reminding everyone of the historic and cultural significance of these outdoor venues. How quickly people forget.

Yesterday, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, which gained worldwide attention when its underdog story to stay in business in the modern era was told in the acclaimed documentary “At the Drive-In,” posted an urgent message to its patrons and fans on its website and social media.

“Devastating news for the Mahoning Drive-In family – due to circumstances beyond our control, the land in Lehighton, PA, upon which the Mahoning Drive-In Theater stands, was optioned to a solar company, Greenskies Clean Energy LLC, who plan to demolish the theater, iconic screen, and marquee, and construct a solar farm in its place,” the message began.

“The management of the Mahoning Drive-In has leased the business from the landowner for decades and was unaware of this situation until the following public notice was sent to neighbors via email, and published in the Lehighton Times News.”

PUBLIC NOTICE NOTICE is hereby given that the Zoning Hearing Board of Mahoning Township (“Board”) will hold a hearing at the Mahoning Township Building at 2685 Mahoning Drive East, in Mahoning Township, Carbon County, Pennsylvania… regarding an application by CF Development Penn LLC, c/o Greenskies Clean Energy LLC (“Applicant”). Applicant seeks the following: relief pursuant to Sections 116-5 (Uses not provided for) and/or variance of Article VIII of the Mahoning Township Zoning Ordinance. Applicant seeks the listed relief to allow for the installation of a 1.53 MW AC solar generation system. The subject premise is owned by Joseph Farruggio, who has granted Greenskies Clean Energy LLC permission to file the subject zoning application. The subject premises is zoned C-1 Commercial District pursuant to the Mahoning Township Zoning Ordinance (“Ordinance”). The Township Zoning Hearing Officer issued a decision by letter dated May 3, 2021 that a Solar Energy System for commercial electric generation is neither permitted nor denied in the C-1 zoning district. All persons are welcome to attend and be heard.

“We are calling upon the Zoning Hearing Board of Mahoning Township to deny the requested variance/relief, and for Greenskies Clean Energy LLC to let their option lapse, allowing the Mahoning Drive-In Theater to purchase the land from the original landowner in order to remain in operation, as it has since 1949. The Mahoning Drive-In Theater is a historic community resource and welcomes visitors from across the globe, bringing revenue to local businesses and joy to tens of thousands every season,” the message continued.

“We urge all locals and supporters to attend the August 3rd, 2021 Zoning Board Hearing (begins sharply at 7 p.m., so please arrive early) and speak out against this variance, and by your presence show your support for the Mahoning being able to entertain and bring joy to another 72 years of patrons both local and from around the world.”

Virgil Cardamone, a partner of the Mahoning as well as its film booker, curator, and publicity director, shared an emotional video with the message as he tearfully rallied supporters of the drive-in. They are planning a rally at the Mahoning (635 Seneca Rd., Lehighton) on Monday, Aug. 2, “inviting all media and supporters to come out to speak about the Mahoning and this issue, followed by a 35mm double feature of films to be announced. Overnight passes will be free for all who attend this show.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 3, supporters are invited to meet at the drive-in and take a caravan to the board meeting at 6 p.m. A final meeting place will be announced.

In the meantime, he encouraged people to share their thoughts on social media and send letters to Greenskies Clean Energy and the Mahoning Township Zoning Hearing Board. A “Save the Mahoning Drive-In Theater” Facebook page has been created and already has over 2,000 followers.

Today, Greenskies responded with a short statement: “When Greenskies first discussed leasing the Mahoning Drive-In Theater property from the landowner more than six months ago, we were not aware of the cultural significance and nostalgic value the theater represented. We now recognize the importance of the Mahoning Drive-in to the community of Lehighton and film enthusiasts far and wide. We are engaging with the theater operator and the landowner to resolve the concerns of all the parties involved.”

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, including Joe Bob Briggs, a cult film critic, television host, and well-known drive-in supporter who currently hosts “The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs” on Shudder and will appear at the inaugural Joe Bob’s Jamboree at the Mahoning this weekend.

Director Alexander Monelli, a Clarks Summit native and Abington Heights High School graduate currently living and making documentaries in Lancaster, captured the heartwarming 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 cinephiles 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 Mahoning Drive-In owner Jeff Mattox courtesy of Alexander Monelli