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The man behind the movies; Mahoning mourns projectionist who turned drive-in into American Icon

The Mahoning Drive-In Theater is grieving following the passing of one of its pioneers.

Jeff Mattox, the owner and projectionist for the drive-in, has died. Mattox, of Kutztown, was 65.

On Tuesday night, Mark Nelson, general manager, Mahoning Drive-In Theater, posted on the group’s Facebook page the announcement of Mattox’s death.

“The Mahoning Drive-In staff is devastated to pass along the news that our beloved leader, business owner, and master projectionist Jeff Mattox, passed away suddenly this week, due to complications from surgery,” Nelson posted.

Mattox first learned the art of 35 mm film projection in the Air Force, Nelson said it was “a skill he carried on to numerous Pennsylvania indoor and outdoor theaters, managing and projecting all over the region, until he came to the Mahoning in 2001 (he often said that when he first set foot on the lot, it felt like “home”), taking over as manager in 2014.”

Nelson said it was Mattox who determined that Mahoning should continue as a 33 mm theater, showing older films, instead of making the transition to digital. The drive-in has become an attraction for classic film and horror flick enthusiasts.

Mahoning is known as the last drive-in that offers only 35 mm retro programming, except on rare occasions when it’s required to go digital.

“That seemed foolhardy at first, but led to it becoming a world-renowned “living museum” (as he often called it),” Nelson said.

The drive-in said it will continue, but some of its first shows of the season will be rescheduled.

“We will continue to maintain that dream, operating The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in tribute to Jeff, a classic American Drive-In bringing the magic of classic 35 mm cinema under the stars to film fans young and old,” Nelson posted. “Please bear with us as we take a little time to reorganize and solidify plans to carry on another 75 years of 35 mm dreams at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, in tribute to the man who made it all possible for us.”

Ticket sales are on hold while the management regroups.

Co-workers reflect

Virgil Cardamone, partner, film booker and curator at the drive-in, said, “It has been the greatest honor of my life to be Jeff’s partner at The Mahoning for the last 10 years. He was a brother to me and a true father figure to many.

“As someone who had learned to run film in the Air Force, then continued to manage indoor and outdoor theaters all over the map, everyone looked up to him and his endless knowledge of the industry and inner workings of operating a 35 mm projection booth,” Cardamone said. “Jeff got his dream drive-in, an all original, nearly untouched 35 mm showplace that needed some love and attention. He gave so many, including myself, the opportunity to assist in the efforts to revive this historic property.

“But his decision to stick with 35 mm when the industry was pushing the world to go digital in 2014 became The Mahoning’s calling card and established us as something unique in the local landscape, and soon the world. He knew the beauty of this theater was the fact it was a living museum and at the heart of every operation he has ever been involved in: the projection booth is the heart. We will never get rid of our 35 mm.”

He said Mattox was the voice every fan heard before each film and the voice that sends them off safely into the night with his signature “Have a very safe trip home. Goodnight, and God bless you.”

Cardamone added “The magic he spun and atmosphere he built wowed audiences from all over the world who started catching wind of what we were doing. He encouraged us to follow our hearts, and had a real way of allowing his team to shine. This familial setting that he nurtured for us created a safe space for film fans to come and experience 35 mm in the ultimate setting.

Cardamone said the team was his family. He had loving nicknames for his staff like princess and sunshine. He had a way of making us all feel appreciated with an “Atta, Girl” or “Way to go” - he gave us a home.

“We did our best to care for him and support him as his mobility became harder in the last year or so. He was looking forward to repairing his hip and knees from years of professional projection and get back to running features on his beloved Simplex E-7 twins,” Cardamone said.

He added that Mahoning has gotten calls and emails from drive-ins and theaters from all over the world who had respect for his work and deep appreciation for what he has built.

He said Mattox’s voice will continue to greet fans before each film and his signature “Goodnight, and God bless” will continue to send them home safely.

“His spirit lives in the walls of his projection booth and will continue to guide us as we move into the next 75 years of 35 mm presentation under the stars.”


Jessica Pell, Mattox’s longest running employee who serves as senior manager, said, “Jeff has been involved with the Mahoning since 2001, and officially began managing the theater in 2014. I met Jeff back in 2010, but when he began managing the theater in 2014, Jeff and I started to form a close relationship.

“I am deeply saddened that I was not able to be with Jeff in his final moments. He has helped me and encouraged me throughout high school, college, and graduate school.”

He attended her graduation ceremony.

Pell added “Jeff was a Christian man who believed in God. I know he is at peace and looking down on all of us. I know the Mahoning family and team is going to get through this and continue Jeff’s legacy of the drive-in and 35 mm film.”

Krista Strobel, one of Mattox’s assistant projectionists, said he brought her on as a film projection apprentice last season.

“His mission was to keep love alive for 35 mm film in our modern world; it’s why the projection booth was always open to Mahoning guests for a tour or a chat,” she said.

“Jeff was generous with his knowledge, encouragement, and kindness, and I’m forever thankful to him for the chance he gave me. I fell in love with working with film and that is a gift I can’t measure.”

A celebration event in honor of Mattox is being planned and details will be announced on social media.

Jeff Mattox, leader, business owner, and master projectionist for the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, passed away suddenly this week due to complications from surgery. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO