William Dalke Jr. built the Family Drive-in Theatre outside Winchester in 1956 in the midst of an American drive-in building boom. “The crowds weren’t as big as the crowds are today because there was so much competition,” says his son, Tim Dalke. “Our drive-in was mostly a family affair from the beginning. I think that’s the same case today.”
The Dalkes have been in the movie business since 1912. “My grandfather William Dalke Sr. owned indoor theaters throughout the Shenandoah Valley,” he says, including the New Market in Mount Jackson, the Strand in Strasberg and Winchester’s Palace Theatre, among others. The Family was the Dalkes’ only drive-in.
Tim, who lives in Woodstock, is not sure why his dad built the drive-in or why he chose that particular plot of land, in the middle of farm country. “I was only 9 at the time,” he says.
Growing up, he and his three brothers would pitch in at the park, and in time Dalke took over the Family Drive-In. “I twinned the screen in 1989 because we could double the product we were offering the public,” he says.
The Family Drive-in was only one of many Winchester-area drive-ins built in the 1950s. “There were seven outdoor movie parks within a 20-mile radius of us at one time,” Dalke says. One competitor, the Royal, was an early venue for a young local country singer named Patsy Cline, who used to belt out ballads on top of the snack bar, so the legend goes, and get booed.
Dalke says that the economics of running an outdoor theater today are different. “Back then, the film rental was a whole lot cheaper. Showing the films could be just as lucrative as the concessions.”
Other than that, the owner — who says that Jim Kopp will be his first option if he ever wants to sell the park — maintains that the Family Drive-In experience hasn’t changed much after 57 years. As he puts it: “Back then, our most popular movies were animated films and comedies, maybe an action movie. Same as today.”