By Samantha Pigott
The greatest joy in life is when work and passion become one. That describes Jim Kopp and The Family Drive-in Theater in Stephens City VA. His story is of a lifelong love for drive-in movie theaters and the community that is built in and around them. Fun, family and entertainment are the crux of Kopp’s vision for his drive-in experience.
And The Family Drive-In is a bit of a fairy tale itself.
As long as he can remember Jim has been a patron of drive-in theaters.
He grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and remembers 35 different drive-ins just in that area. “Going to the drive-in movies was our family entertainment,” said Jim. His strong connection to family and community involvement was fostered by the drive-in movie experiences he had as boy. Come Friday or Saturday night, his family would load into the car and head out to the latest flick. It was about more than just the show; it was catching up with friends, good food, and having fun as a family.
As many foundations of that era, drive-ins have slowly fallen off the map. It’s a familiar tale; the value of the land outweighs the value of the business. The Family Drive-In is one of only seven left in Virginia and the only one in the area. The next closest is in Lexington.
Jim was a staunch patron of the Family Drive-in during his first career at the Library of Congress. He laughs as he recalls each week he would come to the theater and tell Tim Dalke, then owner of the business and still owner of the land, “I’m first in line, if you ever want to sell!” Jim told him that for years.
When the call did come, and Dalke was ready to sell, Jim had already purchased another drive-in in Henderson, North Carolina. Still, Jim didn’t hesitate. His heart was for the Family Drive-in. He and his late wife Megan ran both theaters for three years until they found a suitable buyer for the North Carolina location—which is still operating today.
“A drive-in is a completely different experience than going to a theater,” Jim says. “Its like tailgating at a ball game. There are kids and dogs and people talking all around this place before the show starts.” As he points to the 300-plus microphone stations and two screens, “In the middle of summer on Saturday night, if you try to get in at 8 o’clock for a 9 o’clock show, it’s not going to happen. We are sold out.” Then he adds, “A lot of people end up coming back during the week or on Sunday.”
So after picking out a perfect parking spot, next up is a visit to the concession stand to check out the treats. Rita Sutton, the concession manager and Jim’s girl friend, works so hard to provide the best food possible—anything from funnel cake, ice cream, burgers and pizza to a shrimp basket. Jim pipes in, “ 13 pieces of shrimp for $6, hard to find that. Our nuggets are 100 percent chicken, not pressed meat!”
Rita goes to food shows and works diligently with local venders to keep up on trends. “Yes, we offer healthy food too, but it doesn’t sell quite as well,” she says with a grin. Hand dipped ice cream will be added to the offerings this year, and Rita is mulling over adding wraps to the menu. A recipe for a signature burger is also in the works—okay, I was hungry just standing in the concession stand.
Rita and Jim spend the off-season traveling to drive-in conventions, connecting with other aficionados. They spend a good deal of time learning and brainstorming about what is and is not working for other owners. They also offer advice to those just getting started in the industry. Jim says, “One step at a time.”
Of course, there is a playground where the kids run off some energy before the show starts. Swings and slides are set in a large grassy area big enough to toss the ball around or play a game of Frisbee. Family Drive-In also offers family outings throughout the year. There is an all out Trunk-Or-Treat at Halloween in conjunction with a family friendly movie. At Easter they hunt eggs. At opening night of Cinderella, Rita and Jim organized a Ball for Princes and Princesses of all ages.
The lifeblood of this theater is family. This piece of history has not only survived but continues to thrive.
See you under the stars.
This year the Family Drive-in opened the season March 13 with the new release of Disney’s live action Cinderella and McFarland USA on Screen 1 and Focus and American Sniper on Screen 2. They will be open every Friday and Saturday till Easter, Friday–Sunday till Memorial Day, and 7 days a week till Labor Day. See more details at www.thefamilydriveintheater.com.