Broadening Horizons at Shankweiler’s

Balloon in Schnecksville

Last Saturday, we found ourselves in Barnes & Noble, which was not too terrifically unusual. We’re often in there swilling Starbucks and poring over the latest issue of Modern Bungalow, Food and Wine, or, on the off-chance they have it, the British Journal of Photography. However, this time, I was there with a purpose. A friend of mine has been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and by sharing a few passages of the book with me, he convinced me to get a copy. Which, ironically, proves the book’s point. So while we were in there, Laura wanted to get something on similar lines, and so we both bought a book to read.

Rewind to the previous week. I stopped by Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theater to get some test shots, just before I got my new lens. They have a terrific neon sign out on the road that points passers-by on PA 309 toward the old drive-in. Here’s the shot I posted earlier:

Shankweiler's Drive-In, Orefield, PA

I posted an iPhone version on Instagram, as is my general policy, and continued on as if nothing happened. A few hours later, your friend and mine, Mod Betty from, lets me know that her long-awaited series of videos were going to begin taping. And her first location: Shankweiler’s Drive-In. So, last Friday, we gathered ourselves together after work to meet up with her, and, for the first time in a long while, visit a drive-in theater.

That morning, Laura told me something that rather surprised me. She had never been to a drive-in theater. Now, granted, I probably should have guessed that, considering for most of her life we lived in places where drive-ins had become distant memories. So this was going to be her first Drive-In.

I had gone to the Airport Drive-In in Binghamton a few times in my childhood. Somewhere I remember that my cousin and I went to see 101 Dalmatians at a drive-in in Massachusetts that I would assume is now a parking lot. And when I say my cousin and I watched 101 Dalmatians, I mean that we sat in the back of the hatchback and goofed around with his friends as 101 Dalmatians played on the screen.

Shankweiler's Drive-In Theater, Orefield, PA

It was a beautiful day. We stopped for a burger at Jake’s Wayback Burger up the street, and made our way down to the theater. We walked in and spotted Mod B right away and had a good conversation. Oddly enough, no one (read: me) thought to take a picture of this for any sort of later blogging activity. Forgive me for this, but trust me, it happened.

The first drive-in movie theater was started by a man named Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. Apparently, he came up with the idea because his mother had difficulty sitting in traditional movie theater seating, which at the time time was rigid, hard-backed wooden seats. He spent months and months researching the best way to angle the cars, how to handle the sound, and so on. The sound was originally piped in by three loud speakers, which, as you can imagine, did not endear him to the neighbors. The next drive-in to be built after that was Shankweiler’s, which opened the following spring.

Shankweiler's Screen, Orefield, PA

We settled in to our spot. It was seven o’clock and the movie started at nine. Laura wondered aloud what we were going to do in those remaining two hours, but we soon discovered it wasn’t as hard to pass the time as we thought. People pulled up and emptied out their vehicles with lawn-chairs and coolers and blankets and made themselves comfortable. Children, approximately a million of them, departed from their families and played in the shade of the enormous screen. We talked, we watched, we reveled in the experience.

And then, a balloon came by from the nearby Schnecksville Fair. And then another, and another. Everyone turned away from the focus of the screen and watched them float by.

I was diverted by the sign out front. In all the time I had been in the area, I somehow never got a chance to see it light up, so of course, being the sign-mad idiot that I am, I wandered out and took seven to ten thousand shots with my new lens:

Shankweiler's Neon Sign, Orefield, PA

Hollingshead closed his original Drive-In Theater just two years later, in 1935, making Shankweiler’s the oldest drive-in theater in the country. He later tried (and failed) to uphold his patent on the drive-in theater, which somehow seems strange in the light of our experience. You can’t put a patent on a party, or tailgating. You can’t patent a social gathering. And even though we all paid to get in, that’s just what the experience was, a social gathering.

The movie was “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and even though we hadn’t seen the first one, that seemed irrelevant. The night breezes were cool and we had gathered a good amount of snacks. Everyone had their radios tuned to 90.7 and it was loud enough that we really didn’t have to turn on ours. Soon after the movie started, fireworks went off at the fair. I think the only way it could have been better was if they were giving away free puppies.

lauras-first-drive-inThis is what your first drive-in movie looks like.

It’s very tempting to think that life is behind you, that you’ve seen everything life has to offer. Every once in a while you get reminded that it just isn’t true. Life is always ahead of you, and you can see it on the faces of all those children running around and dancing and doing cartwheels around the movie screen. You only stop growing because you stop it yourself, or lose sight of the future. So the next day we were buying our books. And this week, we grew, we read and learned and now see things from a different perspective.

Shankweiler’s is featured in my new Drive-In Theaters page. Check it out here


A Test at Nick’s Diner

Now that I’ve got my new Pentax Limited lens, I’ve been going around to signs and places nearby that I’ve taken shots of before, just to compare. Part of me is saying to myself, is this really going to make a difference? and the other part is saying, Well, I’m going to have fun trying. The most obvious choice for a test was Nick’s Diner in Allentown, since I’ve taken so many pictures there before. I stopped by there yesterday and snapped off a bunch with the new lens.

Nick's Diner, Allentown, PA

Yep, that’ll do.

Another Roadside Attraction

One of the happier pieces of news I have received in the past few days is the announcement that after a time of disrepair, the sign atop Roadside America in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania has been restored. This was good news for a number of different reasons, not the least of which, because I worked on their website, I would have an official opportunity to take pictures of their sign. But while I’m at it, of course, I might as well share with all of you.

Roadside America Sign - BeforeThe Original Sign, although in March of this year, it looked like this…click here

And now today…

Roadside America sign, June 2014

If you’ve never been to Roadside America (get ready for the plug), it is the masterwork of Laurence Gieringer, who specialized in miniatures and model railroading in the first half of the twentieth century. Essentially, it’s a gym-sized building filled with an electric train set of your dreams: trees, houses, a giant waterfall, several trains running at once and several moving parts.

Roadside America, Shartlesville, PA
It has not changed since Gieringer‘s death in 1963, so for instance, the town at the front right-hand corner has an old one-screen movie theater and an Esso station. During the presentation that happens every hour, Kate Smith signs “God Bless America,” which forty or fifty ago would be considered rather typical and quite possibly corny, but in this day and age seems strangely wonderful, nostalgic and charming.

Esso station at Roadside America

Victor Theater at Roadside America

If you’re on your way out of New York City or New Jersey going to points west along 78, this is definitely one of those places you won’t want to miss. This was my third time through and every time I see details and little things I’ve missed before.

Since I often get to hear some of the comments of the people who visit, one of the things that fascinate me is the people who went when they were kids who are now taking their children or grandchildren. Whether its spoken or not, they see the trains and the buildings and the people through different eyes now, almost fascinated with how much the world outside those four walls has changed. It’s as if their childhood, or a part of it, has been bottled up in there, still active, still in constant motion around the miles of track.

And now the plug: visit Roadside America on the internet at

So, to finish off the camera geekery I expressed in a previous post, I decided on the Pentax 35mm 2.8 Macro Limited. Essentially, it seemed to me to be the perfect Swiss Army knife for my kit. It just arrived today!

Pentax 35mm 2.8 Limited

Feng Shui and the Art of Hot Dog Maintenance

The Pequest River

About a month ago, we were watching one of those house hunting shows where a couple is ducking in and out of houses, accompanied by an agent, all the while expressing opinions on this and that. The couple in this particular episode featured a woman who was deep into feng shui. Deep into feng shui. Every room was throwing off negative energy and this wasn’t right and that wasn’t right and everything is just wrong wrong wrong. This was the constant theme. It got to the point where, as often happens on these type of shows, you begin to wonder how the person’s poor spouse doesn’t hit them over the head with something heavy on a routine basis. Even the host, whose job it is to stay positive and cordial, was very obviously seconds away from some sort of conniption fit. It struck me as great irony that someone who was such a stickler for negative energy was such a free-flowing source of it.

I’m a believer in creating a positive atmosphere, which is what feng shui should be about. Our house was getting a bit cluttered and as a result, we decided to see if there were any feng shui tips we could discover on the internet. There were, of course, but it can get hairy and confusing very quickly, so we figured it was best to stick to basics.

On Saturday, I made good on a promise I made to Laura a while ago, to take her to Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, New Jersey. I went last summer when I had a bit of extra time over lunch, and it was well worth the drive. It opened up in 1944 as a little stand off US 46 with its back to the Pequest River, and it’s continued on ever since. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and the parking lot was full, and full of people with license plates of other states. Hot Dog Johnny’s is one of those rare places that people are willing to drive miles out of their way to get to. A positive atmosphere.

Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

So what makes a positive atmosphere in this case? The food, certainly. Hot Dog Johnny’s follows that fine New Jersey tradition of dipping their hot dogs in oil and frying them up a bit. I insist Rutt’s Hut in Clifton is still the best at this method, but in the end who cares? It’s all good. As for drink, they serve two unusual offerings: Birch Beer, which you can get in a frosty mug, a drink that you forget how good it is until you taste it again; and (stay with me now) Buttermilk. Yes, that’s right. A drink so old-fashioned you can only picture old guys in shorts and black socks with garters drinking it. But let me tell you something: Laura had some and it was good. Better than Buttermilk’s reputation good.

What else makes it a positive atmosphere? One of the things that we read about feng shui was that you should “keep your mouth clean.” More or less, this means to keep your entrance uncluttered, and as you can see, the round shape of the booth and the many windows assure the lines never get too long.

Window at Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

Water features are a big thing with feng shui. So it doesn’t hurt to have a river flowing by the place.

Hot Dog Johnny at the Pequest River

And of course, my favorite, the neon signs? A fire element!

Neon Sign at Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

Now, of course, I’m not an expert. Heck, I don’t even pretend to have the level of understanding the annoying woman on the TV show had, but it’s fairly obvious from the beginning that there is something that draws people to this place besides the eponymous hot dogs. It’s a special place. People from all around will continue to come to this spot and feel what I did, that sense of happiness, even peace, and while I was at it, had a fine dog and a birch beer. I’ll be back.


Allow me to get technical for a moment.

It’s been an odd year for us this year. It started out with two months worth of interviews for a job that would have uprooted us to live in frozen climes, only to see it end ingloriously with a job offer that fell below the radar, followed by a trip to San Antonio, followed by taking turns with the flu. In the midst of all this, I finally decided it was high time to upgrade my lens from a kit and a few old manual primes to something better.

Mine is a Pentax K5, which has been a treat. The Pentax “limited” lens group is well recognized for its build quality and sharpness, but unfortunately, funds are just as limited and I can only afford to get one at a time. Which brings up the messy business of figuring out which lens, in fact, works best for my purposes. In that spirit, I decided to go out to some of my favorite local spots to see what focal lengths I normally use.

My first thought was that I would need something more like a portrait lens, perhaps the 70mm from Pentax, or if I felt like laying down some good money, the 77mm that everyone raves about. I came to a different conclusion on my first stop, The Movies in Hellertown. I put my 70-300 zoom on the K5 and stood across the road, knowing the results of the shots I’ve taken before. Only problem is, I couldn’t get much of anything in shot, so I went back to the kit and shot this one at a focal length of 24mm.

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

My 50mm prime was just as inadequate from this distance with this shot, so I pulled out my old 28mm and got this. Bear in mind I don’t have any room behind me to stand any further back, unless I wanted to be bold and walk up on someone’s front porch:

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

Strike one for anything above 24mm, but then again, compared to most of my sign pictures, this is an unusually large structure ( I also remind myself that Pentax makes a 21mm pancake lens, which would be ideal for this shot). A bit disappointed, I moved on to something smaller, but also one with challenges. I scooted across the border into Phillipsburg, NJ to Eddie’s Drive-In. This old ice cream stand has closed and sits in the parking lot of The Sand Bar, right near the Free Bridge across the Delaware. I put the kit lens on to start, and this time, I used a focal length of 31mm:

Eddie's Drive-In at 31, Phillipsburg, NJ

Exactly what I wanted, and as it happens, the jewel in Pentax’s crown as far as lenses is concerned, is their 31mm lens. However, if you take a gander at the price tag for this jewel, you’ll understand that this causes another dilemma. I went back to the car and put the 75-300 back on. Not enough room for me to get this even from the porch of The Sand Bar at 75, so I stood at an angle and got this shot:

Eddie's Drive-In at 75, Phillipsburg, NJ

Decent, but not exactly what I was looking for (but, by the way, Laura liked this shot better that the other). Strike two, as far as I was concerned. Anything above 40mm would not be able to get the straight-on shot I was looking for. But again, this sign is a tough one, and you really need to get the full building in shot to get the best out of it.

Then I went to Shankweiler’s Drive-In in Orefield, PA. This is a smaller sign, free-standing, and has a lot of room to stand back. In this case, the 75mm worked very well:

Shankweiler's Drive-In, Orefield, PA

But which ones of these was the rarity? The large object with very little room to stand back, or the smaller neon sign with lots of room for me to roam? I kind of knew the answer to this, but when I went back home, I figured I’d go back and look at all the shots I’d already taken, and see what focal lengths I use the most often.

What I found was that I very infrequently shoot at the wide end of my capabilities, which is 18mm. This shot from Olga’s last fall was one of few that I shot at that range.

Olga's Diner from the front, Marlton, NJ

Occasionally, the best shot I took was from 75mm with my long zoom lens, but almost always I used anything higher than that to shoot details of the sign. This was one of the few I took at above 75, from Harrington Music in Cortland, NY this past spring. This one was a rarity because I rarely get a clear shot from that distance:

Harrington Music in Cortland, NY

Overall, I shot mostly in the 28mm-40mm range, and fortunately, there are many good choices in the Pentax limited line that fit the bill. Of course, if anyone has a spare 77mm 1.8 on their hands they can let me borrow, I certainly won’t turn it down. Wish me luck!