Double Feature Under the Starshine: NATO Staff Hits the Road to Visit Member Locations

By David Binet, Director of Membership, NATO

Family Drive-In Theatre

Stephens City, VA

James Kopp, President

Visit Date: Saturday, November 16, 2019

Movies: Ford v Ferrari and Ad Astra

Concessions: Angus Burger Combo Meal, Funnel Fries, Popcorn, Hot Chocolate

The distant voice on the other end of the phone crackled. That happens when one calls from the deck of a cruise ship in the Panama Canal. Jim Kopp, owner and president of the Family Drive-In, called me to provide some details for my late-season visit to his outdoor cinema. He was taking a much-deserved vacation, but still found the time to contact me. “How much do you think it costs a cruise ship to sail through the Panama Canal?” No idea, Jim. “It’s over $400,000! Isn’t that wild?” 

The Family Drive-In Theatre, founded in 1954, is located near the intersection of I-81 and I-66, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The sunsets are majestic as the Blue Ridge Mountains eventually provide shade to the drive-in. Our visit took place in mid-November, so the sunset occurred earlier than in summer (around 5 p.m.). Most drive-ins this far north close down before November, but the Family Drive-In stayed open until mid-December. There was a good crowd during our visit, despite the cold weather—close to 30 degrees Fahrenheit at showtime. God bless the heating system of the modern car.

Ron Graham, an affable cinephile, greeted us upon our arrival. Ron serves as the drive-in manager, and he was in charge while Jim was cruising the Caribbean. We received a tour of the booth and, more importantly, made a trip to the concession stand. With its alluring aroma of popcorn and carnival treats, this is the place to be before and in-between features. It is American cinema heaven. If you order a burger, you can visit the fresh condiment stand (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, etc.) like you are at a friend’s summer cookout. Ron also strongly recommended the funnel fries, and we obviously took his advice. They were incredible, as was the entire experience at the Family Drive-In.

Following our visit, Jim Kopp was gracious enough to share some background about his drive-in journey.

What attracted you to the cinema industry and how did you get your start?

I grew up near Pittsburgh, and my family would make regular visits to drive-ins in that area—there were 35 operating drive-in theaters in the area back then. It was a favorite entertainment option for my family, and my brother and sister loved it. We had our favorites: Fairgrounds, South Park, Colonial, Mt. Lebanon Twin, Rt. 19, and Greentree, just to name a few. (A quick story: My brother and I tried to run away to the drive-in one night in our metal pedal cars. When we found out we could not go to the movies—my parents said go ahead, but they knew we would not go far—we simply turned around at the end of the driveway.) Later in life, I moved to northern Virginia and visited the Super 29 Drive-In, which was one of two outdoor cinemas in the Fairfax, Virginia, area. In fact, the Super 29 ranks as my all-time favorite drive-in! I hated to see it go when Costco bought the property and tore it down. All the drive-ins in the D.C. area seemed to disappear during the 1984–87 period. I therefore decided to photograph and collect drive-in artifacts, just to document these disappearing theaters. I wanted to catalog as many theaters before they totally disappeared. I would take mini-trips to seek out new ones that I had not visited.

When the internet started, I sent pictures and information to various websites trying to list operating drive-ins. I worked as a logistics manager and administrative officer at the Library of Congress until September 2006, and the Library knew of my deep passion for drive-ins. I would get inquiries at work from the media and those seeking information on drive-ins and would answer them. Therefore, I guess that I was the resident expert! I got to work on a segment for the NBC “Today” show, and contributed substantially to the Smithsonian Magazine on an article they wrote several years ago. (One interesting side note: during the 75th and 80th anniversaries of the American drive-in, I convinced two major game shows to include a special segment on the drive-in. “The Price Is Right” did a final “showcase” in honor of the drive-in by giving away a convertible and urging folks to attend a drive-in during that year (2008). “Jeopardy!” included a category in honor of the 80th anniversary (2013) entitled “At the Drive-In.”]

So getting back to the question—after the Super 29 Drive-In disappeared, I started to patronize the Family Drive-In Theatre and eventually met the owner, Tim Dalke. I was a weekly regular, and I often told him that when/if I retired from the Library of Congress, I wanted to have the chance to take over the Family Drive-In. Well, Tim asked me, “Jim, are you sure?” Heck yes, I was sure! In December 2005, I found a closed drive-in theater in Henderson, N.C., called the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre (the owners listed it for sale on Ebay). I hired the late Richard Herring as a theater consultant (Richard would often tell me to stay off Ebay). My late wife, Megan, and I eventually reopened the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre. April Wright included our story in her documentary movie Going Attractions, and Megan has the best line of the movie. When asked how she felt when I purchased the cinema, she said that she wanted to kill me. That is how my life as a drive-in theater owner started. When Tim Dalke called me in the winter of 2009 and asked if I was interested in operating The Family Drive-In, I said heck yes! I went to his office the next day to work out the lease terms. During 2010 and 2011, I operated both theaters. We sold Raleigh Road in 2011 when Megan was too sick to travel back and forth.

What do you appreciate most about your customers?

The sense of family and their desire to come together for a few hours at our theater to enjoy movies “under the stars.” I tell folks that there is something magical about having family and good friends sitting outside, under a beautiful starry night, watching the latest blockbuster movie. It is a memory that lasts a lifetime. Our fast-paced lifestyles make it difficult to see family or friends come together for a few hours. I am so happy to be able to provide that opportunity. You get a real sense of community each movie night! At my theater, we do many special events tied to the movies: Beauty and the Beast Dance Ball; Frozen Extravaganza event for Frozen 2; Halloween Trunk or Treat and Costume Party; and Dusk ’til Dawn movie marathons, etc. I am also very fortunate that the Winchester, Virginia, residents remain very supportive of our theater and want to see it preserved and operating. They know it is a treasure for the community to have one of the few remaining drive-ins.

What do you appreciate most about the drive-in community?

The dedication of the owners, operators, and staff. Unfortunately, drive-ins have been a dying breed, and to keep many of our theaters alive, it requires a real dedication to preserving the drive-in experience. You have to be budget minded, hope for great weather and fantastic movie product, hope something does not break, and try to make a small profit to turn back into cinema improvements. My fellow drive-in owners all have that passion—and a desire to keep going—and that is what it takes. We are all infected with that passion.

What is your biggest challenge with the cinema (i.e., does anything keep you up at night)?

Weather and movie products. If it is raining, then it is hard to encourage folks to attend. If the product is not that good, folks will not attend even in good weather. In 2018, many drive-ins struggled since it was so rainy, and we lost a handful of cinemas that did not survive. Fortunately, 2019 had good weather and product. Additionally, as a lessee, and as my area starts to grow, land values increase, and I worry that one day The Family Drive-In will be replaced with a housing development or retail store. As long as I am able, I hope it stays a drive-in for many years to come.

What is your favorite movie, and what concessions would you have while watching it?

Favorite movie: Grease (reminds me of my youth). I would enjoy it with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and large Diet Coke.

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