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'Under the stars'

Vehicles line up
Vehicles line up well in advance for the Family Drive-In Theatre's opening weekend of the 2010 season. For it's 80th anniversary season this year, the drive-in will host its first Auto & Bike Show Family Fun Day this weekend. Dennis Grundman/Daily file (Buy photo)

Families picnic
Families picnic and use the playground area prior to the movie at the drive-in. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Children play on equipment
Children play on equipment in front of the screen showing "Ironman" at the drive-in theater in MIddletown. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

By Preston Knight - pknight@nvdaily.com

STEPHENS CITY -- For everything that makes the Family Drive-In Theatre such a nostalgic hit, the premise seems so modern-day couch potato.

How many times have moms and dads demanded that their children get off their behinds and play outside? That sentiment has been answered in recent years by gaming systems such as the Nintendo Wii, but the solution was there decades before -- instead of bringing outside play in, how about taking the indoor fun out?

That's what happens at the drive-in theater south of Stephens City on U.S. 11, where the indoor television takes the shape of about an 80-foot-wide, 40-foot-tall movie screen; two of them, in fact. Children who are foreigners to the whole concept of watching a movie in or around a parked car get the best of both worlds -- fixating their eyes on a show while fresh air engulfs them.

"It's more of a family experience," said Middletown resident Mark Hensell, 36, who had four youths with him on the opening Saturday of the 2010 season. "You can come out and experience a movie."

The fact that it is a drive-in does not serve as the sole reason the 1956 theater is so popular each summer, as there were seven within a 20-mile radius at the time of its construction, said Tim Dalke, whose father, William F. Dalke Jr., built the theater. Instead, its success can be attributed more to its location, which has enabled it to stand the test of time as other drive-ins expired -- the Stephens City location is now the only one around, unless Lexington and Baltimore are considered close.

Tim Dalke said land where other theaters were located became too valuable as cities grew. A drive-in, which is a seasonal operation, simply was not a good fit, he said.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and the business that has been in the Dalke family for more than 50 years -- and is being leased for the first time this year (to Colonial Entertainment Group LLC, of Henderson, N.C.) -- is certainly that. At the drive-in, a unique Northern Shenandoah Valley experience awaits.

Starting at 8:30 p.m., two movies play back-to-back on the two screens, although you can leave after the first. If you are not early to arrive, you run the risk of sitting in traffic on the shoulder of U.S. 11. About 250 cars can park for screen No. 1, and another 140 for screen No. 2, Dalke said.

But there is also something exciting about being stuck in traffic and inching your way into the theater, especially for a first-time visit. The incremental movements as you head to the gate add to the buildup, and as darkness settles in and you are advised by a sign to not have your lights on, you cannot help but feel as if you are entering a world of unknown -- and you like it.

For Dalke, nostalgia is the best name tag for that world, and for good reason. That is the prevailing theme, and rightfully so, of the drive-in -- from the oldies music playing before the first movie comes on to the portable in-car speakers to hear the shows to the old-fashioned Sprite sign at the concession stand. There, the prices are affordable, enabling two people to get two hot dogs, fries and a drink for less than $10.

"The best fries in Virginia," Hensell said. "Maybe the mid-Atlantic."

As people wait for the first movie to play -- in their cars, on the backs of trucks or in lawn chairs -- you get the sense that you are waiting for something big, similar to a fireworks show. There is an anticipation, and while the same goes for traditional indoor theaters, you have the open space at a drive-in to move about and absorb it. That's a perk Hensell's 13-year-old nephew, Logan Rutherford, of White Post, speaks of.

"If somebody spills a drink [at an indoor theater]," he said, "it's all over you."

Privacy is a big appeal of the drive-in, Dalke said, but there has been a little more to thank for its success. He said his father's vision to make the theater family-friendly has worked well. When the theater was built, so was a playground.

Dalke's father was a lifer in the indoor theater-owning industry when he decided to try his hand at a drive-in. It took help from his four sons to keep it alive, with Tim Dalke, who was 9 when it was built, taking over upon returning from Vietnam in 1972.

In 1989, the second screen was added, and through the years the only other large change was switching to automated projection.

"We try to keep everything the way it was because of the nostalgia," Dalke said.
Jim Kopp, of the Colonial Entertainment Group, is now tasked with doing the same. He used to live in Warrenton and has attended the theater since 1983. Kopp told Dalke that if and when the man retired, he would be interested in the theater.

First, however, he found a drive-in in Henderson, N.C., and purchased it five years ago. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre opened in 1949 and, according to its website, is the oldest operating theater of its kind in the state.

About two months ago, Kopp heard from Dalke, and he signed a five-year lease on the Stephens City theater.

"Those of us in the drive-in industry, it really is hard to describe," Kopp said. "I call it a magical movie moment under the stars. ... It's just something magical about it."

Dalke said people from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington frequently visit, oftentimes without even knowing what is playing. Kopp said first-run features can be expected.

On opening weekend, "Iron Man 2" was one of the four movies shown. But anyone in attendance for the blockbuster was there for the atmosphere just as much as anything else.

"I thought it was a dying art, but it's kind of exciting," said Justin Trenary, 17, of Bunker Hill, W.Va. "It's a lot more adventurous."

Watching movies outside, what a nostalgic concept.

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