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Stephens City proves drive-ins are not 'expendable'

Friday - 8/24/2012, 4:21am  ET

drive in screen The Family Theatre (WTOP/Jason Fraley)
The Family Theatre is about an hour and a half from the District. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)

What it's like at the drive-in

WTOP's Jason Fraley reports.

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Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON - Drive-in movie theaters have long been on the march to extinction, with only two left in the Greater Washington area, both built in 1956 and both situated about an hour and a half from our nation's capital.

Five years ago, I checked out Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Md., just outside Baltimore, for a screening of "Transformers" (2007).

This week, I decided to check out the other local venue, The Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Va., just off where Interstate 66 hits Interstate 81.

I was pleasantly surprised to find both the classic car-window speakers and car radio capability. Bengies says it removed the window speakers due to theft concerns, but The Family Drive-In Theatre still has them.

"A lot of people don't get to experience the speakers at the drive-in anymore," said owner Jim Kopp, who took over the theater three years ago.

"If you're like me, I put the car speaker in the window and I also turn my radio on, so I'm getting a stereo-type event."

Every night, an hour before showtime, Kopp's speakers fire up Billy Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." It's a tradition, he says, after experimenting with new music and getting customers demands to return to the "golden oldies."

In addition to the window speakers, The Family Drive-In Theatre also stands out for having two screens, each showing double features on opposite ends of the lot.

This week, it was "Para Norman" paired with "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" on the 40- foot by 84-foot family screen.

I parked myself in front of "The Expendables 2" and "The Dark Knight Rises," playing on the smaller 25-foot by 59-foot adult screen, reserved for PG-13 and R rated movies.

Smack dab between the two screens is a projection booth, shining beams of light through two windows in opposite directions.

"It's hard to see the whole movie when you're working there and flipping between two screens," projectionist Tom Sederstrom said.

"If you time it right, they're both not ending at the same time, which can get pretty hectic," he said.

The two screens allow the theater to separate the violent, sexual flicks from the clean family fun. The typical family film runs six to eight weeks. Pixar's "Brave" ran for eight weeks.

"Eighty percent of our patrons are families. I call it the minivan crowd. A lot of it is nostalgia, it's memories of something. And a lot of it is families on a budget. We offer two first-run features for $8 and $4 for kids. That's two first- run features for $4. You can't hardly beat it," Kopp said.

Mike and Meg Bachman of Winchester, Va., have brought their family five times this summer.

"It's just the whole environment, great for the kids, being outside, sky lit, it's awesome. It's like a tailgate party without no alcohol," Mike Bachman said.

"Making sure we support our local businesses here to keep things like this open instead of sending it out to the corporate, ginormous movie theaters," said Meg Bachman.

What does their daughter, Mary, think?

"It's awesome and great and it's really fun," she said. "There's a playground and you get to see the stars and the moon at night."

The stars and moon above also make for a perfect a date night for teenagers.

Rachel Schlosser, 17, knows the proper protocol.

"If you drive past and don't see a whole lot of cars, you gotta (SIC) come here, get your spot, reserve it," Schlosser said.

"If you're here near dinner time, you can always come here to the food place to get your food."

Connie Shoemaker runs the concession stand, serving a collection of French fries, shrimp in a basket, onion rings, hot dogs, chicken patties, BBQ beef sandwiches, fish sandwiches and, of course, popcorn. Shoemaker says the cheese sticks are definitely the most popular.

"I grew up right behind the drive-in actually. We tried to watch the movies off our front porch. It was so cool to be close to something but yet not be able to be right there. From that distance, (the screen) was just a big white square," Shoemaker said.

Like Shoemaker, Kopp also experienced the theater as a kid. He remembers watching "Footloose" (1982), so when he took over the reins as owner, he made sure to book the "Footloose" remake.

"Marvel's The Avengers" was the most successful draw this summer, running for eight weeks. "The Dark Knight Rises" also had a nice run, but Kopp thinks the Colorado movie theater massacre hurt attendance, especially at a family theater.

Kopp says he's open to customer suggestions as to what movies to book.

"We had a lot of folks that wanted 'Moonrise Kingdom,' which is an artsy type film. Artsy-type films don't usually work in the drive-in environment, but we had so many requests for it, we got it! We were the first ones in the Shenandoah Valley to run 'Moonrise Kingdom,' and we had a good run with it. Patron response," Kopp said.

Mike Bachman would also love to see some classics brought back so that his kids can experience them outdoors on the big screen.

"It's endless how many movies they could bring back. I think 'Jaws' would be cool, or 'E.T,' 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' Now that would be the best one to see outdoors. ... Those Steven Spielberg movies. You bring all those out here, (kids) will be out here. They'll watch 'em."

Daughter Mary agrees, "I've seen 'E.T.' and that's an awesome movie." Mary apparently loves the sci-fi alien stuff, as her favorite movie at the drive-in this summer was "Men in Black 3."

The Family Drive-In Theatre is one of 10 drive-ins left in Virginia, but the next closest is in Lexington. Quite the hike.

As for Maryland, Bengies is the only one of 46 drive-ins left standing. It screens only on weekends, while Family Theatre is open seven nights a week.

DCist recently reported community support for Bengies, noting that a Baltimore jury awarded $838,000 to the theater's owner in a suit against a convenience store whose lighted sign was interfering with his ability to screen movies.

Indeed, the development of the modern world is clashing with old school tradition. Kopp says he anticipates drive-in theaters switching to digital, possibly in the next year, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"The possibilities of what digital would do for the drive-in is unbelievable," Sederstrom said.

"Yeah, we'll miss the 35 mm, but digital would really open up the possibilities. Concerts, sports events, allowing the drive-in to be more than just a place to watch movies. It would become more of a family entertainment center."

After all, family entertainment is what this place is all about.

"We'll be coming here forever," Bachman said. "I can see myself being old and gray and sitting here watching movies outdoors."

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)