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



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!


At First You Don’t Succeed

Tuesday ended up being a very interesting day. I had planned to take Laura in to work on my way, but she remembered she had a hair appointment north of town and it made more sense to take both cars. Then, on Tuesday morning, when we saw all the accidents that were going on in Allentown that morning due to the snow and ice on US 22, it suddenly became more sensible for us to revert to our original plan. So I drove her in, avoided all manner of accidents. But it left me waiting in the salon for an hour and a half that night.

Armed with the copy of Killing Floor by Lee Child, I was prepared to wait things out if it took all winter. I sunk into a zebra-stripe chair and dove in to my book. People came and went. The sun set. No snow was falling, but it was on its way that night. My mind wandered: could I go anywhere? Normally I’d find a sign to photograph, but I had pretty much tapped out the north end of the Lehigh Valley. Except…

The Roxy in Northampton
The Roxy, June 2010

Those of you who follow this blog will know that there is one sign I have been dying to get all lit up: the Roxy in Northampton. I’ve chronicled my woes surrounding this location before. I’m always there at the wrong time. Just a few weeks earlier, I spun by there again, only to be at least an hour and a half early. I determined that they must turn on all the lights just before showtime. I checked my phone. They were showing Frozen at 7. I looked at the clock. Quarter after six.

I went back to where they were wrestling Laura’s hair into submission and asked how long it was going to take. 45 minutes. Just enough time to see if I’m right. I jumped in the car and made my way over to Northampton.

Normally I’m a firm believer in neon magic hour, but I’ve been thwarted by this sign so often I was just willing to give it a shot. I bounced along the somewhat-plowed streets of Ironton, PA and eventually made it to my target at 6:30. Dark.

I yanked my book out of the back seat. This time, I was going to stay. I had just enough to read about Reacher fooling two assassins on his trail and shooting them in the back, when suddenly, a light appeared in my rear view mirror.

Roxy Theater in Northampton, PAI nearly cried.

Roxy Theater, Northampton, PA

I bounced around for about ten minutes, hitting it from all angles, until I realized that I had to go back and pick Laura up. She texted me when they were at the blow-dry portion of the program and I headed back into the car to go back and pick her up. So, cross this one off the list. At last.

Hotel Parking, Orefield, PA

A bit of sad news to report, although not unexpected. On our way to Laura’s hair appointment, we noticed the above sign had gone missing in the previous few months. The hotel was long since gone, so this was hardly shocking, but it will be missed.