It's Intermission Time

Out at the drive-in

Posted on May 12, 2008 at 10:39 PM
The Couple bought the drive-In on ebay; They run it with hard work and nostalgia

By Matt Ehlers - The News Observer


Henderson - The movie business is a glamorous one, with all those red carpets, fancy awards shows and pretty, pretty people.

That's why, a couple of hours before the movies are set to begin, Jim Kopp is emptying garbage cans, tossing the bags of trash into the back of his pickup for later disposal.

You know, for the glamour.

Kopp spends his evenings at the drive-in, a nearly forgotten segment of the movie industry. He and his wife, Megan, own the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, a patch of land with a big screen in Henderson.



PHOTOS BY PAILIN WEDEL

This season marks the third year the couple have owned the place, so it's also the third year that Kopp has served as sanitation engineer. Additionally, Kopp is in charge of the groundskeeping and landscaping, filling the sandbox in the kids play area, booking the movies and making sure the concession stand has enough hot dog buns.

When Durham's Starlite Drive-In closed about a year ago, the Kopps' theater became the closest drive-in to the Triangle. Add the lack of competition to the fact that they snapped up the theater on eBay for only $22,000, and it still doesn't make the investment a surefire winner.

People don't go to under-the-stars movies the way they used to. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins operating in the late 1950s. There were fewer than 400 drive-ins in 2007.

But for all the work, and the potential downside, Jim, 54, still sees a touch of glamour in it.

"It's just the magic of it," he says over a Coke before the theater opened last Saturday. "It's hard to explain."

He remembers going to the Super 29 Drive-In in Fairfax, Va., as a teenager, and doing what teenagers do at the drive-in. That theater is long gone, having been bulldozed to make room for a Costco. But Jim can't forget the way it used to be.

"To this day, I can go to the parking lot of that Costco store, and I can envision how that drive-in looked."

When he says this, he nearly cries.

He loves drive-ins so much that he took early retirement from his government job in Washington. He emptied the $165,000 he had tucked away in his 401(k) and spent it on the drive-in. Megan invested money from an inheritance.

The first year, the theater wrote off a $90,000 loss.

Keeping memory alive

Megan and Jim have their own drive-in memories. Megan, who uses a wheelchair, remembers watching "Psycho" as a child with her parents. During the scary parts -- even though getting around is difficult for her -- she managed to climb out of the back seat and into the front with her parents.

As an adult, Jim kept his drive-in memories alive by purchasing memorabilia on eBay. The couple have a drive-in speaker on a pole in their bedroom in Warrenton, Va. Megan nearly rolls her eyes as she shares this.


PHOTOS BY PAILIN WEDEL

They have an extra bedroom dedicated to showcasing old posters and pictures of old drive-ins. The room is painted red. Jim's collection even includes a barf bag, the kind once handed out before horror movies.

When asked how much he paid for it, Jim thinks for a moment before deciding it probably cost about $2. "Oh, baloney," says Megan. "It was more like $5."

For a moment this seems serious, as if maybe Jim's better half has finally grown tired of all this money going toward a drive-in dream. But she clarifies: "I love to tease him."

It was during one of those eBay treasure hunts that Jim found the drive-in. He and Megan made the 200-mile trip from Virginia to check it out before placing their final bid. The place was overgrown with weeds, and Megan thought he was crazy for even considering the purchase.

Jim wouldn't be deterred.

One advantage of buying his own theater was the treasures that came with it. The Henderson theater's main storage area is a padlocked room beneath the screen. Inside are piles of old poles and speakers, movie posters from the 1970s and even some movies that previous theater owners never returned. The speakers are no longer needed, as today the sound is transmitted via FM signal through the customers' car radios.

Back in the '70s, like a lot of drive-ins, the Raleigh Road theater showed some seminaughty stuff. The evidence is beneath an old table: reels containing the black-and-white nudie film "Shanty Tramp."

Even though those days are long past -- the Kopps emphasize family entertainment -- some apparently haven't gotten the word.

"We still get phone calls," says Jim, laughing, "what's the late, late show?"

Adopting the theater

That first year, bottom-line wise, wasn't a great one for the Kopps' drive-in. They paid salaries out of their own pocket.

Last year was much better, with the theater paying its own bills. Jim estimates that he and Megan have invested about $300,000 in the theater. The couple own the business but rent the land.

He hopes this year to turn his first real profit. People in Henderson and the surrounding area have joined in to help.

While they wait for their Virginia home to sell, the Kopps are staying with Elizabeth and Jonathan Stevenson of Henderson, who also work at the theater. Once the Kopps sell their house, they plan to build a new one in Oxford on land they've already purchased.

Devin Partyka of Oxford, who owns a turquoise 1969 Cadillac DeVille convertible, has helped start a classic car club at the theater, encouraging folks to bring out their cars to the drive-in.


PHOTOS BY PAILIN WEDEL

When he is asked why he enjoys the drive-in so much, Partyka's answer sounds much like Jim's.

"Oh, man. You've got to know. It's not something you can explain."

The theater, which opened in 1949, has spaces for 265 cars. A good night, Jim says, means 75 or 100 cars.

One of those last Saturday was filled with the Dias family of Wake Forest. Bethany and Jeff brought their kids: Mazie, 9, T.J, 8, and Julie, 4, to watch "Horton Hears a Who!" and "Jumper." They even brought their dog, Tinkerbell. With Julie in the back of the family's SUV with her dad, Mom sat in a nearby camp chair, wrapped in a blanket.

Why do they come to the drive-in? That's easy, Mom said. Where else can a family spend $10 and see two brand-new movies?

At Raleigh Road, admission is $5 per person for the nightly double feature. Kids 12 and younger get in free.

Before the Kopps bought it, the theater was a bit down on its luck. But with some work, it started to come around, and the people came with it.

Jonathan Stevenson, who helps host the Kopps and works at the theater as a projectionist, says the theater gives the people of Henderson a place to come and spend time with their kids. "It means a great deal to the community," he says.

And that, in turn, means a great deal to the Kopps.


You can read the original article at: http://www.newsobserver.com/105/story/1016149.html

And visit the Raleigh Outdoor Theater at: http://www.raleighroaddrivein.com/

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