Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Theaters

Since 2008 I’ve been intermittently researching a classic American institution: the drive-in theater. As a fusion of America’s romances with the motion picture and the automobile, the drive-in theater phenomenon is not only a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time, but remains a viable entertainment continuing to attract families and film-goers to its steadfast roadside survivors.  The drive-in theater has been around for more than 85 years and owners and fans alike are hopeful that the stars will continue to twinkle over these attractions for years to come.  Please support your local drive-ins; without the support of faithful patrons, these cultural icons will continue disappearing into history. 

The Drive-In Theater Phenomenon in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has stood at the forefront of the drive-in theater industry ever since these “ozoners” and “passion pits” appeared on the outskirts of American towns during the early 1930s.  Located in Orefield, PA, Shankweiler’s Auto Park (now Shankweiler’s Drive-In) opened on April 15, 1934 as the second patented drive-in theater ever built. and the first in Pennsylvania.  It continues operating today and remains the country’s oldest drive-in.

During the drive-in theater’s golden years, Pittsburgh, PA was nicknamed the “drive-in capital of the world,” boasting over 40 theaters in the area, many notably located along the Lincoln Highway.  Today, Pennsylvania has the second most number of drive-in theaters in the country, although the overall number of drive-ins has sadly diminished since the industry’s peak in the late 1950s.

Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania Drive-In Theater Exhibit

DIT Exhibition AdvertisementI wrote an article for the Westmoreland History Magazine on Westmoreland County drive-in theaters, which appeared in the Fall 2008 issue.  My good friend Shirley Iscrupe, the Pennsylvania Room Archivist at the Ligonier Valley Library, and I had often discussed collaborating on a photo show, as the Pennsylvania Room hosts a popular photo show every year based on a different historical theme.  We eventually decided I would guest curate a photo and memorabilia show celebrating past and present drive-in theaters throughout Pennsylvania during the summer of 2009.

Earlier that spring, I continued my research of the drive-in theater industry and worked with some of the people and drive-ins that I had met when I was writing my article.  Thanks to the support of these wonderful and invaluable resources, I secured an extensive collection of photographs, art, advertisements, and original artifacts from a variety of Pennsylvania drive-ins including but not limited to speakers, tickets, operating manuals and signs.

Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Theaters opened in the Pennsylvania Room at the Ligonier Valley Library on June 9, 2009 and continued until July 11, 2009.  During the opening night reception, visitors enjoyed browsing photos and artifacts while munching on freshly popped movie theater popcorn, courtesy of Lee Zimmerman, owner of the Hi-Way Drive-In Theater located in Latrobe, PA.  Mr. Zimmerman was on hand to answer questions about the drive-in theater industry, particularly about the centerpiece of the exhibition: an original 1940s carbon arc projector from the Hi-Way Drive-In Theater.

Virtual Exhibit Tour, Plus Pennsylvania Drive-In Theater Visits

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The following key individuals and organizations are among those who loaned materials and/or provided services and support for the drive-in theater exhibition:

  • Brian Butko
  • Dairy Queen – White Oak, PA
  • Denny Pine – local drive-in theater enthusiast
  • Joe & Debbie Warren – owners of the Evergreen Drive-In,  Mt. Pleasant, PA
  • Lee & Kathy Zimmerman – owners of the Hi-Way Drive-in Theater, Latrobe, PA
  • Ligonier Valley Library
  • Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor
  • Preservation Pennsylvania
  • S&T Bank – White Oak, PA Branch
  • Shankweiler’s Drive-In – Orefield, PA
  • Toby Atticus Fraley
  • Twin Hi-Way Drive-In – Robinson Township, PA
  • Westmoreland County Historical Society

In addition, I created a free brochure for the exhibition, listing contact information for all currently operating drive-in theaters in Pennsylvania during the 2009 season.

DIT Exhibition Brochure Page 02DIT Exhibition Brochure Page 01

The brochure was also distributed to patrons at the Evergreen Drive-In Theater in Mt. Pleasant, PA during the 2009 season.  I also provided other free drive-in theater materials for visitors, courtesy of local drive-in theaters.

I also wrote an article for the Ligonier Echo on the history of the drive-in theater, which was also picked up by two other Trib Total Media affiliates – the Connellsville Daily Courier and the Mt. Pleasant Journal.

Stars still twinkle above drive-in theater – Tribune-Review, July 3, 2009

DIT Presentation 06
Jennifer Sopko & Brian Butko (Courtesy of Sam Banales)

Besides the opening night reception, we also hosted an event in conjunction with Preservation Pennsylvania and the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.  On Saturday, June 27, 2009, the Pennsylvania Room welcomed guest speaker Brian Butko for a presentation and a book signing session for his book, Lincoln Highway Companion: A Guide to America’s First Coast-to-Coast Road.

DIT Presentation 05
Courtesy of Sam Banales
DIT Presentation 03
Courtesy of Sam Banales

A prolific author, editor and the nation’s leading Lincoln Highway historian, Mr. Butko gave a wonderful talk on drive-in theaters and their connection with the Lincoln Highway, particularly in this region.

Success & Publicity

The response to Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Theaters was overwhelmingly positive.  Many people were excited and impressed by the pieces that were featured, especially the carbon arc projector. The exhibition attracted several hundred library patrons, drive-in theater fans and individuals currently or formerly in the drive-in theater business.

Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Theaters received coverage from local media outlets, including:

  • Latrobe Bulletin – front page headline and interview with guest curatorLatrobe Bulletin - June 8, 2009
  • Ligonier Echo – included guest curator’s article on the history of the drive-in theater
  • Connellsville Daily Courier – included guest curator’s article on the history of the drive-in theater
  • Mt. Pleasant Journal – included guest curator’s article on the history of the drive-in theater
  • Greensburg Tribune-Review
  • Ligonier Valley Library website and blog
  • Ligonier Living community blog
  • Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor website
  • Brian Butko’s Lincoln Highway News blog
  • Announcements at local government meetings

The Nostalgia Continues: Westmoreland County and Western Pennsylvania Drive-In Theaters

Opening night ad for the Ruthorn Drive-In Theater. The Daily Courier, June 19, 1947. Later renamed the Evergreen Drive-In, this is Westmoreland County’s first and now only surviving drive-in theater.

I got a chance to resume my research after more than a decade since my first drive-in theater piece. On April 28, 2019, I presented the history of drive-in theaters in Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County during the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s annual “Remember When” program at the Greensburg Country Club in Greensburg, PA.  I highlighted the past and surviving drive-in theaters that were located in the county as well as touched upon the state of the industry in Pennsylvania today. You can check out my presentation here.

I was also quoted in a summer 2019 Tribune-Review feature on surviving drive-in theaters in Western Pennsylvania, which was picked up by the Associated Press: Drive-In Movie Tradition Continues in Western Pennsylvania.


5 thoughts on “Movies, Motors & Memories: Pennsylvania’s Drive-In Theaters”

  1. Unfortunately I didn’t become aware of drive-in theaters until my first visit to one in 2010. This exhibit would have been awesome to see!

    1. Thanks for your message! I didn’t become really interested in drive-ins until not too long before I started researching them back in 2008 and I actually go to visit some. I never went to the movies very much when I was kid (my parents weren’t really into going to the movies) so I think I was only at a drive-in once before my research trips (the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-in, which was in North Versailles, PA). I haven’t been to any this year, but I hope to get to at least one before the summer is over. You have some great stories on your blog! I am glad to see you were able to visit Shankweiler’s! If you ever get to western Pennsylvania on your drive-in trips, please drop me a line! There are some good ones still open around here. 🙂

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