Nostalgia Under The Stars
By Bethany Davidson
As the sun sets over Stephens City, a piece of history is about to come alive. Just a mile south of town, cars filled with families, friends, and hand-holding couples line up along a stretch of Route 11. Turn signals blink in unison as each driver awaits his or her chance to ride through the gate and into the Family Drive-In Theatre. With only 366 such theaters left in operation today, these eager moviegoers are about to experience a part of American culture that is slowly dying, a part that Jim Kopp is devoted to preserving.
A self-proclaimed drive-in fanatic, Jim Kopp has been a theater patron since early childhood and a regular at the Stephens City establishment since 1987. Through the years, he had often expressed an interest in operating the local theater so when Tim Dalke, whose father started the drive-in in 1956, decided to retire in 2010 he turned to Jim. If an operator could not be found, the Family Drive-In would be forced to close its gates forever. Kopp's response to the offer was, "Heck yeah!"
Now in the third year of a fiveyear lease with the Dalke family, Jim and his wife, Megan, have sold the North Carolina drive-in theater that they bought in 2006 and are concentrating their efforts on the 56 year-old Virginia theater full time. While they have maintained the original look of the theatre, which is known as one of the prettiest and well kept, they have made a number of positive operational changes.
Modifications such as expanding the concession menu, showing first run films, and accepting both credit and debit cards have increased both the patronage and the profit of the theatre, but all of these changes have been made keeping the one thing they'll never change in mind— the theatre's family tradition. With box offices prices listed at $8 for adults and $4 for children for a double feature, the drive-in offers a fun and affordable way to spend quality time together for families. "My kids are growing up really fast," says patron Christina Hamme, "so we don't have a lot of time to stick together as a family and do things as a family and this one thing that we've done for years."
"It definitely is for families," says another patron, Cheryl Benoit. "It gives kids something to do before the movie starts." Benoit explains that modern theaters can be problematic for patrons with young children. "If I were to bring him here, it's ok if he doesn't sit still for five minutes because there's a playground. There's a swing. There's grass to run around in."
Individuals from all over the tristate area and Washington, D.C., make their way to Stephens City to experience the atmosphere of the drive-in and a little nostalgia. "What better way to watch a movie than under the stars?" comments Ralph Shoemaker, a drive-in employee.
And while many of the theatre's patrons have been coming for years, some even since childhood, Jim offers this advice to those who've not taken in this dying part of American history. "There are a lot of parts of the country that don't have drive-ins. And if they've never been, it's an experience that they need to have," says Kopp. "And it doesn't have to be this drive-in, any drivein." Although the theatre has survived a generations worth of hazards and even thrived, becoming one of the Baltimore Sun's ten best drive-in theaters, a new threat is on the horizon. Film studios have begun to phase out 35-millimeter film and as a result, all movie theaters must convert to digital by the end of 2013, a proposition that comes with a $140,000 price tag.
Kopp is not opposed to the conversion because it does offer several advantages such as shorter load times and the ability to screen alternate content. He is, however, concerned about the impact it may have on the industry that is his passion. He is worried that the high cost and ten-year commitment to pay off the debt will be too much for many drive-in owners, most of whom are in their 60's, 70's and 80's. "A lot of them are just going to say, I'm not going to put that kind of money into this," says Jim.
The leaseholder's outlook is much brighter, however, when it comes to his own theater. "Do I think I'm going to raise $140,000? No, but I'm confident that by the time this season is over with we'll have a sizeable down payment and then we can work out the rest."
The couple already has $5,000 in a bank account dedicated to the conversion initiative and numerous fundraisers are in the works. The Kopps are in the process of developing a fundraiser with WINCFM for some time in August and a car show is already scheduled for September 22nd.
In addition to these large-scale events, drive-in enthusiasts can help by simply attending the theatre and making purchases at the concession stand. Most of the box office earnings go to the studios, but the concession stand, "that's what pays the bills," says Jim. That's what "keeps us alive."
And while Jim has a wish list that includes items like a third screen and a drive-in museum, his main goal is to keep the theatre alive so that more people have a chance to make magical movie memories under the stars.
The drive-in's season begins in early April and ends at the end of October. For more information about the theatre and for current show times, visit the Family Drive-In Theatre's website, www. thefamilydriveintheatre.com.