Family Drive-In

Drive-In
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Editorial Review

Half a Century Later, Nostalgia for Stephens City's Silver Screen

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Just before dusk on a muggy Monday night, the swing sets and jungle gyms at the Family Drive-In are packed. The movie won't start until just about dark, but everybody comes early to get a good spot and a snack, and to squeeze out those last little bits of romping energy.

"Honey, why are we here?" Corrie Horning shouts after she's asked the question by a reporter.

Her husband, Joe, has one child in hand and is stalking off to meet the other two by the monkey bars. " 'Cause it reminds me of when I was a kid," he answers back, without breaking stride.

They came to the Stephens City drive-in (in Frederick County, Va.) from Hedgesville, W.Va., almost 40 miles away. In fact, they came the previous night, too -- or almost did, until the rain really started coming down and they had to turn back. The Horning kids, 11, 9 and 8, weren't going to be happy until they actually got here.

Behind them, Cathy Madagan's two kids and their three friends are snuggled into the bed of a black pickup made soft with a bubble-gum pink comforter. As their bellies fill up with graham crackers and juice, Madagan recalls coming to this very spot as a young girl and then as a teenager (when it might not have been juice she was drinking).

"I remember seeing 'Jaws' here," she says. It was more crowded then, but otherwise just the same. And maybe the appeal has changed a bit, now that she sees things through mom eyes. "It's the openness -- where you can just sit and your kids can play. If your kids talk and act up, it doesn't matter. They won't bother anybody. If they fall asleep, it doesn't matter."

The sameness of the place is intentional. Owner Tim Dalke was just 9 when his father opened the Family Drive-In in 1956. The old metal speakers that hang on a car window aren't easy to replace, so his crew repairs them by hand. Hot chocolate from the concession stand runs $1.35. It's $2.60 for a hot dog. Buddy Holly and Elvis are piped through the sound system before the feature begins.

"We have gone out of our way to keep everything exactly like it was back then," Dalke explains. Folks come from all over -- they always stop to say how far they've come -- and they're all after the same thing, Dalke adds. "People want that nostalgia."