Drive-in theaters are a Kopp family affair

August 15, 2011

STEPHENS CITY, Va. — The only thing more American dreamy than sitting in an aluminum lawn chair with polypropylene webbing in the bed of a pickup truck at a drive-in movie theater is operating a drive-in movie theater at which people sit in aluminum lawn chairs with polypropylene webbing in the beds of pickup trucks.

Jim and Megan Kopp operate two drive-ins.

Says Jim: “It’s a lot of fun.”

Says Megan: “It’s a lot of work.”

Jim caresses a spooling stream of 35mm film stock, his pudgy, smudged fingers feeling for splice tape as he dismantles the reel for the third “Transformers” movie in the hot, noisy projection booth at the Family Drive-In on Route 11 in Virginia’s northernmost county. Megan watches him like a hawk from her wheelchair. Two lumbering projectors throw 3,000-watt beams of light to a 60-by-80-foot screen, whereupon “Cars 2” plays for an audience of minivans and pickup trucks around 11:25 p.m. on a Thursday in August.


Jim Kopp operates the Family Drive-in Theatre in Stephens City, Va. (Evelio Contreras/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Jim, 58, spent his teenage years at the Super 29 drive-in on Route 29 between Centreville and Fairfax.

Megan’s earliest drive-in memory is being spooked by “Psycho” in her parent’s Buick convertible in Lancaster, Ohio.

“I been handicapped all my life but I jumped from the back seat to the front seat,” she says. “I don’t know how.”

Her eyes dart to her husband, who’s fumbling with a couple of metal reels. She shouts over the projectors’ motors.

Megan: “There’s film in the reel still, Jim.”

Jim: “Where?!”

Megan: “Turn around!”

Twelve years ago they met on an AOL dating site. He was a logistics manager for the Library of Congress’s archive in Landover. She and her elderly mother were taking care of each other in Ohio (Megan’s spine shattered after a nurse dropped her when she was two hours old).

Five years ago Jim left his library job and leased the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater in Henderson, N.C. A year and a half ago he acquired the two-screen Family Drive-In, in operation since 1956.

Now the couple spend their waking hours driving between the middle of North Carolina and the top of Virginia, checking on both theaters, sometimes running the projection booths, forgoing salaries, subsisting on his retirement money and her disability checks and discount rates at Travel Lodges and Diet Cokes from the concession stands.

This is the dream.

There is magic, they say, out here under the stars, the cicadas in surround sound, crunchy gravel underfoot. They eat and breathe the drive-in. A whole room of Jim and Megan’s house in Oxford, N.C., showcases drive-in memorabilia: Signage, programs, toys, jigsaw puzzles, assorted artifacts.

Megan: “And barf bags.”

Jim: “Huh?”

Megan: “Barf. Bags.”

Jim: “Oh yeah, during old horror movies people would go ‘bleeehhhacccuggghhh.’  ”

They love the drive-in staffers, some of whom have worked there for decades, and they love their audience.

Exhibit A: Last year, a family arrived in two pickup trucks toting furniture from their house. The family unloaded and arranged a couch, rug, fridge, end tables, lamps and fake flowers so they could watch the outdoor movie in the comfort of their own living room.

Exhibit B: There was a couple in a Mini Cooper who used to bring along their pet duck, whom they’d dressed in a kerchief and diaper. The duck’s name was Charlie.

Jim: “And Charlie’d be hangin’ out the window and all I can do is quack at him. Quack quack quack.”

Megan: “Start that next reel. What are you doing.”

The booth reeks of hot metal and rusting oil cans and adoring exasperation. Dust-caked box fans flutter cobwebs. Jim putters. Megan watches.

Outside the booth on opposing screens, Severus Snape and Lightning McQueen lord over a placid acreage encircled by a pitch-black treeline. The midnight breeze smells of sweet things and fried things.

Fantasy flickers at 24 frames a second.

Reality unspools at 3,600 seconds an hour.

Jim and Megan’s sixth wedding anniversary is in three days.

They will celebrate at the Red Lobster in Winchester.

“We’re both crazy,” Megan says. “I dunno, we just got along together I guess.”

It is here, at 12:26 a.m., that one imagines a magical, parallel universe in which the romantic-comedic marriage of Jim and Megan is adapted into a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and projected 60 feet high and 80 feet wide under a dome of constellations in front of a rapt audience of motorists who wouldn’t otherwise give a whit about who’s in the bright little projection booth in their rear-view mirrors.

For more photos: Drive-ins still glow along Route 11. See more from Lifestyle and Entertainment.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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