Any horror fan in northeastern PA has likely heard of the Mahoning Drive-In just outside of Lehighton, PA. Since 1949 the theatre has been offering moviegoers films in a 35 millimeter format on Simplex projectors, and to this day they’ve stuck with formula. The result is an experience that captures the nostagliac feel of genre films as they were original experienced. I was lucky enough to talk to Virgil Cardamone and Matthew McClanahan, two of the people involved with running the Drive-In every season about how they became involved with the operation of the theatre, the challenges of maintaining a “retro” space, and their own experiences with the drive-in culture.
Alright guys lets do this. First off, Introduce yourselves and say what you do with the Drive-In.
Virgil Cardamone: My name is Virgil; I’m one of the partners and film booker at the Drive-In.
Matthew McClanahan: I’m Matt, formally known as “The Guy.” I’m a partner and manager at the Drive-In.
VC: Collectively Jeff, Matt, and myself have guided the theater into its retro format the last few years. A true team effort and passion project for us all.
MM: We hope to one day build it up to the best intergalactic spaceport on this continent, but we’ll settle for coolest drive-in for now.
Excellent! Did any of you ever go there growing up?
VC: I had no experience with The Mahoning until we partnered in 2014. My hometown drive-in was the Bucks County Twin, although that has been a Target now for many years.
MM: I never heard of MDIT until a few years back. I grew up going to Becky’s and Shankweilers Drive-In movie going was burned into my skull at a young age. It left a lasting impression and carried over into my love of cinema.
Becky’s was my personal stomping ground as a child. I saw Jurassic Park for the first time there. So you guys had a connection to the culture of drive-ins and horror cinema growing up?
VC: Saw Jurassic Park at Bucks Twin as kid. Ironically, it was our 1st retro show! I have always said, and said to Matt the first day we met, I fell in love with film in the back seat of my parent’s car. Definitely a connection to the drive-in growing up. The love for all genres came over time and the journey from stage to film school.
MM: Not really horror, that came later. But drive-ins had a way of making even mundane early 2000’s popcorn fare a big experience. Some of my most vivid childhood experiences are those at drive-ins.
What was your introduction to horror? Like how were you first exposed to it?
MM: Gotta chalk this one up to Spielberg and Tobe Hooper.
VC: My father showed me all sorts of films at a very young age (probably too young). T2 changed my life with him. Shortly after we watched The Exorcist together on home video. That was a game changer.
This was before the ‘spider walk’ scene was added I take it?
VC: Yes, it was. Another stand out is watching Evil Dead 1 & 2 at a family cabin with my uncle and cousins very young. I managed a Hollywood Video for 6 years through high school/college. That’s where my deep, deep love for genre hardened; Tarantino Film School, as we called it. That certainly has carried over at the theater.
MM: For me, it was in my teens, trolling through all the horror movies at my local library and working on my first feature film, which was essentially a love letter to 80’s horror and comedy alike. Many of those films served as creative springboards in my filmmaking endeavors. From Fright Night to CHUD II
There seems to be a rather fond feeling for the format (film) that many consider obsolete, be it on VHS or 35 mm. What do you think the appeal of such a medium is to fans of genre film?
VC: Film was looked at as an obsolete format only a few years ago and the idea of a theater not switching to digital meant certain death. We turned that on its head almost immediately. We looked at the idea of running film the way it was meant to be seen, as an absolute necessary part of the film going experience. We have said, time and time again, nothing looks and feels like film. Like how nothing sounds and feels like vinyl. They thought we would be dead in a year. Now, we have gained such a following it’s unbelievably inspiring.
MM: Nothing is as delightfully crummy as VHS. But that’s what you love about it: it’s organic; it’s gears and belts, a physical thing, doing a thing, to show. It’s how they experienced it. We all get attached to things that bring us joy. I think in the case of film, and yes, VHS, is that a lot of us have a very warm association them. Those films were produced and released for and on those formats. I think what’s cool about The Mahoning is that we’re taking something as nostalgic and memorable as seeing a favorite movie on film, and making that experience accessible to everybody.
VC: We are featuring titles that many of us fell in love with on home video and that is a huge part of our culture and crosses over in a big way for those who appreciate film exhibition: Studios thought we were crazy when we switched our system back to a reel to reel
MM: And you know what? They’re right. We’re nuts. I think that’s our biggest strength. We are unequivocally unique in the kind of venue and experience we provide.
VC: Might I just say, we proudly wear the pin of “The Only All Retro Drive-In”?
Yeah there’s definitely something about seeing a certain film on 35mm. A few years ago you guys did Day Of The Dead and it was honestly incredible seeing it with all the pops, scratches, and imperfections. So what led to you purchasing the drive-in?
VC: We didn’t purchase the drive-in. We came into the business with Jeff, who is the business owner.
Ah gotcha. In that case, how did you get in contact with him?
MM: Fate brought us together. A roadside discovery from turning right instead of left.
VC: Yes. Destiny
Is there a story behind the coming together?
MM: There is. Basically what I said above. I was driving home from a film shoot and encountered a backup in traffic, so I went the opposite direction using a last minute escape route I planned on a road atlas.
VC: Matt called me and said, “You will never believe what I’m looking at.” It was the Marquee for the theater. At that time he assumed it was abandoned, but, his digging led to the meeting with Jeff and, within a week, I was meeting Jeff as well, and discussing what we thought we could bring to the theater. We immediately hit it off with Jeff. We really saw eye to eye on the whole idea of what the theater could be. At that time, it was in very bad shape and had little to no attendance
MM: We all knew we had something special on our hands and knew the potential of what this place could mean for a lot of people
VC: It was Jeff and maybe 2-3 others that lend a hand. It was clear that it needed love…
MM: Dire straights, and no team to speak of
VC: This whole journey has been very destined and our coming together is very storybook. Honestly, what started as a mission to save one drive-in has become a movement to revive the drive-in scene and respect for 35mm beyond our wildest dreams.
MM: And I like to throw parties.
VC: That helps. Folks come for the movies and stay for the over the top fandom.
Yeah? So I take it that was the real reasoning for the ‘Misbehaving Sasquatch Films’ you guys did last summer with the guy running around as Bigfoot costume?
VC: Pretty much. [laughs] No, we always like to surprise people with what we can get on film and what we can put together for weekend programs. As booker, it’s so rewarding to see people lose their minds when we release our events.
MM: We’re getting more and more diverse with our shows, and the different groups that come into the fold and assist us with programming and event planning. It’s a social scene above all else
VC: The atmosphere has truly ballooned into a comic-con level love of films each weekend. We have recently been called “like an outdoor Alamo Drafthouse.” But we are 100% retro. There is definitely a ton of collaboration happening with these events. From films, to bookings, to poster art, production design of the lot, music, merch. All made possible by the amazing folks that have come out of the woodwork to support our dream.
MM: The theater is a creative hub for artists to collaborate.
VC: Again, inspiring. Which is as much of a draw as the films…the community.
MM: from painters to filmmakers, cupcake bakers…
Creepy podcast hosts…
VC: [laughs] You guys have been great supporters
MM: And, you’re flyers look cool. That helps for sure.
We do our best. And I wish we could claim responsibility for how good our stuff looks aesthetically but it’s all done by folks more talented. You’ve done a few events with Exhumed Films now. How did you get involved with working with that crew?
VC: We work with Exhumed regularly with partnered productions once a month. We met the Exhumed guys through a mutual friend. We were invited to one of their holiday screenings in Philly, where we all hit it off immediately. They have built a community for many years that naturally crossed with our base: It’s amazing how many folks approach us looking to put on shows / co-productions.
MM: We approached them early on with the prospect of putting on horror and grindhouse shows at the drive-in. We’ve really developed some strong seasonal shows with them. It only made sense the two would come together to collaborate on shows. You can find an event by Exhumed every month at the drive-in.
VC: Amazing champions of 35mm exhibition.
MM: And we’re all about dat acetate
VC: Liam was brought into the fold by destiny as well!
How did you end up meeting Liam?
VC: He won our 1st Golden Ticket Giveaway! Matt has those deets.
MM: Liam won a season pass on share contest back in 2015. We didn’t know him at the time, but invited him up to the drive-in for a photo op and ticket handoff pre-season. We jived right away with the guy.
VC: There is an amazing shot of him and his lady smiling from ear to ear with the golden ticket in front of the screen.
Gonna find that picture for this interview!
MM: I remember snapping it! That’s when he told me about the podcast.
He’s in like a tick now I guess!
VC: Liam and I definitely hit it off immediately as well. Meeting so many likeminded folks in the community has been one of those unexpected gifts. The rally behind us has gotten us so much attention. We hope our story inspires others. It seems to have hit a nerve.
I’m really glad that the drive really has become like a local mecca for genre film fans. The location is perfect and you have the look of the drive-in nailed.
VC: All original. It’s a time machine when you pull onto that lot.
So what goes into planning an event? Is there a rigid set schedule you guys work out beforehand, or is it sort of organic and you just wing it?
MM: A and B.
VC: We meet regularly in the off-season to plan the events. It’s collaborative in what we decide to go after. Now getting the films and licenses is a whole other hurdle. As you know, 35mm film is harder and harder to track down and sometimes rights for the films we play an elusive and take much digging to acquire rights.
MM: We flew by the seat of our pants early on; we had to. Each weekend would pay for the next starting out. A few years back, there were weekends where we’d get a show locked and announced a week before we ran it. Now we can blast things months ahead of time and give folks the opportunity to plan. We’ve got enough steam in our engines to really begin to invest in bigger and better shows, and take chances on some wildcards along the way
VC: I look at film prints like works of art. At this point, some pieces have so many duplicate copies that they can be easily found and admired. Others are literally down to the original print and may be sitting in someone’s basement. The ability to find those prints and bring them to the big screen for an audience to enjoy is incredible.
Is it true that the Day Of The Dead print you showed was a personal favorite of George Romero’s?
MM: Yes these are true things.
That’s so rad.
VC: Some of the prints we’ve shown are the finest left in existence. Which is crazy to think that some of the most popular films in the world are almost non-existent on 35mm. We’re mining for that gold. We have been blessed to have the support of the film community as well. Filmmakers and studios now love the idea of what we are doing.
My next question was going to be on the drawbacks of running a strictly 35 mm drive in theatre. While I do commend you for sticking to your guns, doing so can’t be without its challenges. What are some of those challenges you’ve come up against in this business?
MM: We show movies on 1940’s era equipment, which is EPIC, and those machines are built to last. But machines will break. They need maintenance, they need parts, and, in many instances, finding parts is just as illusive as the films we play.
VC: Availability for certain parts. But cost to put on these shows is big. We are acquiring rights for each film, paying to ship huge amounts of weight in film across the country. It’s a challenge and the industry does not cater to our business model in the least
MM: We’ve had some epic meltdowns. 2 years ago we had projector knocked out by a lightning strike. It burned out a relay and filled the booth with smoke. We went the rest of the night on one projector, changing the reels every 20 minutes.
VC: The risk you run working with 1947 projection.
MM: if there’s one philosophy we hold close to the chest, it’s that the show must go on. One time the takeup clutch on a projector went bad, so Jeff and I took turns spinning the takeup reel.
You spun it by hand?
VC: To the max.
I remember a few years back during a John Carpenter double feature a fog bank rolled in during The Thing and you guys kept the movie going. It was way worth it.
VC: Atmosphere is everything at the drive-in! Haha I must say, the look on peoples faces when they see those monsters in action is priceless.
Absolutely. Watching An American Werewolf In London during a rainstorm was something out of a dream for me.
VC: You don’t get that at your local indoor.
Two more questions and then I’ll let you gentlemen go for the evening. What are some upcoming events people should keep an eye out for?
VC: Oh boy, well we have been releasing events each week leading up to the opening of the season and beyond. I’ll hit you with a list. Notably are some of the bigger festivals, 80’s Party weekend, Ultra man Fest, Zombie Fest, Vampire Weekend, Batman Fest, and VHS-Fest.
MM: We program shows for everybody. I always tell people, “we have a show for you”, and it’s true.
VC: For certain. No matter your taste. We will hit it
MM: And, that’s what we love doing: mixing it up and trying on new looks. “Hey what about that movie? I wonder what that looks like 75 feet tall?” From Suspiria to Spiderman.
VC: Love it.
Hell yeah. Alright last question: personal favorite horror movie aaaaand why?
MM: Fright Night OR Fright Night 2, and it’s hard to choose. Both are super fun and fresh, but the first one I’ve seen a few more times. It’s homage to classic monster movies with an 80’s buddy comedy twist and Peter Vincent is such a lovable hero. You root for him the whole way. Good new-wavy soundtrack to boot. But then 2 has that bowling scene, and that’s just perfection right there. Vampire bowling might put it over.
VC: As far as all time favorite, Halloween is a lesson in filmmaking and Carpenter is the Hyphenate artist I’ve always strived to be. An all around maestro in so many fields. But From Dusk Till Dawn has a special place in that it hit me at the height of my love for Quentin and Rodriguez and the indie scene that surrounded them at that time. So hard to pick
I can get down with all of that. Gentlemen…thank you both so much for talking. I’m looking forward to a season of movies coming up with you guys. Anything else you wanted to say?
VC: We thank you sir. Word of mouth is absolutely key. I can say that the way the film community has embraced us, our story and mission is (again) beyond overwhelming. And I hope our gratitude to all of those who can get behind us comes across in this interview. Support the Drive-in. Long Live Film.
MM: Thanks man, it’s always fun to jaw off about something we love so much. It’s humbling how special our little big theater has become to so many people. I always tell people that my favorite thing about everything we do is getting to meet tons of cool new friends.
VC: We hope that folks are inspired by what has become of our dream.
For more info, go to www.mahoningdit.com