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More than movies; Mahoning Drive-In supporters say events more like a convention

A planned solar farm threatened to destroy the Mahoning Drive-In theater. Instead it awakened the legion of supporters local and beyond.

That wave of support not only changed the solar farm developers’ mind, it is helping build the theater into something more permanent than before the crisis took place.

The online movement to save the Mahoning showed that its vintage film projector and selection of cult films aren’t the only thing that make it special. The solidarity of movie fans was so overwhelming that it has overshadowed the solar farm threat itself.

On July 13, the theater management announced a green energy company had leased the property and were planning a solar farm. It sent shock through the fan base, especially because they were coming off a wave of good press, and heading into one of the drive-in’s biggest events ever, a weekend hosted by the TV host and film critic Joe Bob Briggs.

“It didn’t make sense. The weekend before there was a glowing New York Times article. The coming weekend was the biggest weekend of the year. Then that news broke,” said Mike Thompson of Salem, New Jersey.

But less than 24 hours later, after countless social media posts from drive-in fans, the company announced they weren’t going through with the plans. Now, the theater is in talks to purchase the property and protect it long-term.

The threat of the solar project shed light on just how many people love the theater. The 72-year-old theater has been amassing a new generation of fans since the current management reinvented it as a place to celebrate vintage and cult movies in 35 mm film.

The saga made fans fear that the Mahoning was set to become just another drive-in in the long line to be abandoned or developed. But it isn’t an average drive-in.

From April to Halloween, the theater is one of the only places where fans can see old Godzilla movies, zombie movies, or 80s action movies on film. They source the films directly from the studios, or from private collectors. The promoter Exhumed Films, which has a weekly series at the theater, is one of the world’s largest private collections of 35 mm films.

“To go to real drive in, see those films, see them with crackling sound, poor quality is the best,” said Matt Mullin, of Pottstown.

The theater doesn’t just play the movies. For most weekends there’s something extra. The theater’s production manager, JT Mills, creates sets so fans can take photos. He dresses up as characters like Michael Myers, Pee Wee Herman, Slimer from Ghostbusters, and Marty McFly from Back to the Future. Multiple times a year, the theater hosts the actual actors and writers from cult movies. They’ve hosted live wrestling matches followed by movies starring Hulk Hogan. The door to the projection booth is always open, so fans can see the projector and film reels up close.

“It’s not just like a movie, it’s like a convention and a movie. I think what they have here is unbelievable,” said Justin Brunner.

Some fans even say that the Mahoning has surpassed conventions because they don’t have to go back to their hotels at the end of the event. The fans arrive early, many of them from New York and New Jersey, to set up their campsites to stay throughout the weekend. They stay up late after the screenings are over, talking about movies.

“You roll up, meet people, and they become your new best friends somehow. Really, it’s about the people more than anything,” said Rachael Smith, of Douglasville.

Their most popular events celebrate subcultures within cult films - Zombiefest, Camp Blood and VHS fest among others. There is another level of immersion. Fans from all over the country arrive. Many dress up in costumes. At Camp Blood, they have camp games with a horror film twist - like a body bag relay race.

The team behind Atomic Home Video, based in York County, are part of the dedicated few that still prefer to watch movies on video tapes. The VHS fest has connected them with people who share their unique hobby.

“It’s the only outlet for events like this,” said Tanya Price.

During the pandemic, restrictions on movie theaters fueled a resurgence in drive-ins across the country. For the Mahoning it helped to build the already growing fan base. Years ago, fans could easily grab a spot in the first few rows of the theater. Now, those rows are packed and cars are lining up in the back of the space. The big weekends, like the recent sell out well in advance.

A few years ago the theater was open weekends only, but now there are weeks when they will have showings on Sundays and Tuesdays as well.

Before the solar farm announcement, the theater’s popularity may not have been apparent to those who don’t show up regularly. But now, the theater and its fan base are in the spotlight.

“Outside this community, you might not have realized it was doing so well. But we knew it was thriving and bringing so much to the area, and there was no way that it was going down,” Mahoning fan Alan Batz said.

The Mahoning Drive-in theater celebrated after news that it would not be replaced by a proposed solar farm.
Liatra Myers, Tanya Price and Ashley Seitz vend at Mahoning events like VHS fest with their business, Atomic Home Video.
Mike Thompson drives three hours and camps in his car to see classic movies on film at the Mahoning Drive-in Theater.
Brothers Justin and Rob Brunner of Bethlehem are longtime drive-in lovers who have been coming to the Mahoning for several years.
Alan and Takyra Batz of Emmaus are at the drive-in theater most weeks, and attend special screenings for supporters of the theater's Patreon.
Mahoning Drive-in fans go all out for screenings, including for the recent celebration held after plans for a proposed solar farm were scrapped.
The Mahoning builds elaborate props and sets, giving fans more than just a film screening.
Supporters of the Mahoning Drive-in theater shared their appreciation for the venue during a recent celebration for the cancellation of a planned solar farm on the property. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS