Jim Kopp, owner and operator of the Family Drive-In Theater since 2010 and all-around community booster, died of Covid-19 complications in January 2021. With no clear plan in place for continuing operations, the theater’s future was dim. Andy Combs, a local pastor who held services at the theater started looking online for advice, grants, or investors that might help keep the theater open. He found Andrew Thomas, owner of a couple of drive-in theaters in Houston, who purchased the theater earlier this spring.
Most of us like movies, but Andrew Thomas really loves movies. “After I got out of college with an economics degree, I realized that sitting in front of a computer all day moving numbers around wasn’t what I wanted to do. My father has a locksmith business, but I wasn’t very good at that either. As a young kid, we didn’t go to the movies a lot as a family. But when I started working as a teenager, that’s what I would spend my money on, DVDs and tickets.” With encouragement from his soon-to-be wife, Juanita, Thomas started looking and found his first opportunity in the movie business in Alvin, Texas. The theater had closed in 2008 and needed work, but after a year of negotiations with the landlord and a lot of effort, the two of them opened the Wellborne Cinema the day after Christmas in 2013. Soon married to each other and the business, the Thomas’s expanded their operations in 2015 with the purchase of the Show Boat Drive-In located in Hockley, TX. In 2020, Thomas partnered with Alicia Tashiro, owner of Blue Moon Cinemas, to launch the Moonstruck Drive-In located in East Downtown Houston.
“There is a strong nostalgia for drive-in theaters and it’s become a special experience. Especially with younger generations, even though they did not experience the 1950s and 60s style drive-ins, they seem drawn to it. Like me, I never went to a drive-in until I purchased the Show Boat. It has a multi-generational appeal, where you can take kids and grand-kids”
Ron Graham, the projectionist at the Family, recalls how he started in the business just after Jim Kopp purchased the drive-in from the Dalke family in 2010 (who had built the theater in 1956). “There was an open interview and I thought I’d get a part-time job working concessions so I could watch movies. Jim saw that I shared his enthusiasm and he trained me on all of the operations. He had a tremendous energy and dedicated himself to this place. When I started we were running 35mm film. It would take half a day to unpack the film for each movie from the cans, splice it together, and set it up on the platter system. So for 4 projectors it was a two day effort. We switched to digital projection in 2013. Our front projector throws the light 349 feet to the screen and the rear throws it 178 feet. Those are hot bulbs and we had to air condition the projection room too, so it was a big investment, but it really updated the experience.”
Graham pointed out that Kopp’s enthusiasm extended beyond just the projection room. “He was a showman and would regularly dress in costume to promote the movies. We would also travel around the area to promote the theater and let people know we were here.” Thomas observed that Kopp was a bit of an outlier in the current drive-in world. “There are not a lot of drive-ins left and most of the owners are older. Usually it’s a family business and the next generation is not interested in continuing. My plans had been to expand from Houston along the Gulf Coast into Florida, where there is good weather year round for drive-in theater. When I found out about the Family, I realized that there was a good opportunity up here because it’s a unique experience and it has a regional draw.”
“There is also a tremendous amount of community support for the theater and I want to continue to expand the activities and community engagement. We’ve kept the team and are slowly rebuilding the knowledge that Jim had. We’ll be open regularly by Memorial Day and later in June plan to run the full 7-night schedule through the summer.”
The Family Drive-In Theater is located at 5890 Valley Pike (Rt. 11), Stephens City VA, approximately 40 minutes from Charles Town. Information and show times on the web at TheFamilyDI.com and on Facebook @FamilyDriveInTheater. Schedules are updated on Mondays. Patrons are encouraged to purchase vehicle tickets via the website to ensure a parking spot (you can purchase additional passenger tickets online or at the gate). For events and other information email Info@TheFamilyDI.com (no phone).By Staff Contributor