The line of vehicles stretched from Stephens City’s Co-op to the ticket booth of the Family Drive-in Movie Theatre begins to roll forward around 6:30.
This initial rush into the lot is the most hectic moment at a drive-in theater. Experienced viewers dart to their favorite spots in the middle of the middle rows or to the easy-to-exit last rows, while newbies lose their way between the signs for Screen One and Screen Two and park yards away from the speaker—all while a growing number of children flee their parents cars for the playground or the concession stand. At the Family Drive-in in Stephens City, Virginia, this disorganized herd is managed by a team of teenaged car wranglers.
Cousins and Car Wranglers:
Outfitted with walkie-talkies and a golf cart, fifteen-year-old Tiffany Graham and seventeen-year-old Timmy Richmond direct lost cars to open parking spots and create order in the rows—trucks in the back, hatchbacks next, and cars in front—the drive-in version of stadium seating. Occasionally, the pair gets word of a stray that needs redirecting and they zoom off with such enthusiasm, their golf cart nearly takes the turn on two wheels, but Tiffany and Timmy are not teenagers getting what kicks they can from their summer job, they’re experienced professionals (and they probably know exactly how fast they can push their golf cart before it flips).
Tiffany began her drive-in career five years ago. At ten, she worked in the backroom of the concession stand buning hamburgers. By thirteen, she ran the Snack Shack. Timmy, her cousin, started at the theater soon after as a clean-up man, restoring the Family Drive-in to presentable conditions after a show. “Rain or shine, it’s got to be done,” Timmy tells me from behind the cart’s steering wheel, “but if you leave it until the afternoon, the birds spread trash everywhere.” Tiffany nods in agreement from the passenger seat. I lean against their front tire just in case the pair finds something more interesting than my interview.
To many of my questions about working at a drive-in the cousins give me the same answer: “It’s a family thing.” When I finally ask them what they mean by “family,” if it refers to the name of the theater or a familial feeling, Timmy answers “both.”
“Most of us here are from my family or Jim’s family,” Tiffany explains. She runs down the family tree: her dad, Ron, is the projectionist, her sister Kathleen works as an expediter in concession, Jim’s daughter, granddaughter, and partner all hold positions in the theater. As far as Tiffany knows, Nancy and Paula in the ticket booth are not relations, but collectively, they’ve put in fifty years at the booth. “It’s a family thing.”
“I’ll work here as long as Jim’s alive,” Timmy declares with the strength of a young man’s conviction.
A Fan Turned Operator:
Jim Kopp, the operator of the Family Drive-in, began his relationship with the theater as a fan. Away from his position as a logistics manager at the Library of Congress, he nursed a passion for drive-in movie theaters. They reminded him of his own teenage years, sneaking in beer and friends hidden in his trunk. When he heard his favorite drive-in was scheduled to be torn down and turned in a Costco, he confessed to me that he “wanted to lay in front of the bulldozer.”
After Jim retired, he bought his first drive-in, the then dying Raleigh Road, on eBay. In 2010, as the Raleigh Road began to re-establish itself in its community, Jim was offered the opportunity to lease the Family. Of course, he accepted. For the next three years, Jim and his wife Megan ran both drive-ins, shuttling between states. But when Megan became sick, Jim sold the Raleigh Road.
Sadly, Megan passed away, but Jim hasn’t given up on the Family. He guided the theater through its expensive transition from film to digital projection and continues to add to the experience. His newest plan is to run a propane pizza oven near the concession stand.
Timmy told me that “For a drive-in to be successful, the owner has to be passionate and Jim is the most passionate person about showing movies.”
I saw that passion when Jim took the time to tell me his story and the theater’s story on the opening night of Toy Story 4, with a packed house and a run on hamburgers. “It’s an interesting business,” he said and then with a laugh added, “It will beat the living tar out of you.”
While that’s probably true, I never got the impression that Jim has ever seriously considered leaving the drive-in business.
The Best Thing:
Before I take my foot off the wheel of their golf cart, I ask the teenage car wranglers what they enjoy most about working at the drive-in. Tiffany says she likes seeing so many happy families having fun together. Timmy says it’s nice to work with people he’s grown up with.
So basically, “It’s a Family thing.”
I thank them for talking to me and they give me their Instagram handles before flying off to the other side of the lot.
Plan Your Visit:
The Family Drive-in Theatre operates 7 nights a week during the summer months (June/July) and weekends March thru early December.
5890 Valley Pike, Stephens City, VA 22655 (Rt. 11 South) (Exit 307 off I-81)
Movie Line: (540) 665-6982