Go Where the Stars Appear Overhead and on the Big Screen
When most folks think of summer, thoughts turn to blockbuster movies, ice cream and leisurely evenings spent enjoying warm temperatures. In the past, combining all three could be accomplished by heading down to the drive-in theater with your sweetie or your friends.
And even though those days may seem long gone, especially for Frederick residents who can only remember drive-ins of yesteryear, they really aren’t so far away—and you won’t even need to pull that DeLorean out of storage to get there.
Though there are only about 330 drive-ins left in the United States, a trio of theaters is situated within 90 minutes of Frederick: Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, The Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Va., and Haar’s Drive-In Theatre in Dillsburg, Pa. All three offer double- and sometimes triple-features.
“It’s just so much fun to see these kids come for the first time and their eyeballs get big when they see the big screen,” says Vickie Hardy, one of the owners of Haar’s (pronounced “hairs”). “Finding Dory is going to be fun—they’ll be in their outfits and with their toys.”
Hardy is a third-generation owner of Haar’s. She is actually one of five owners, including her husband, Doug, Connie and Al Darbrow and Sandra Haar. Hardy says she’s been at the theater her whole life, both for fun and as an employee.
“Our goal is to keep our prices within reason so families still can afford to take their entire family out for an evening event without getting a sitter,” Hardy says.
Both Hardy and Jim Kopp, who runs The Family Drive-In Theatre, caution that the drive-ins often sell out quickly on Saturday nights, and to arrive as close to opening as possible. Though it might seem odd to head to the movies hours before they begin, Kopp said it’s often a party atmosphere before the films start.
“It’s a lot like a tailgating party at a sporting event,” Kopp says.“You get your lawn chairs out, you can bring a Frisbee or ball; in our case we’re dog-friendly so you can bring your dogs. … It’s just such a unique environment. You’re sitting outside under a nice sky watching a big Hollywood blockbuster movie.”
All three theaters offer a slice of nostalgia with the latest blockbusters and offer diverse snack bar offerings, with more than just buckets of popcorn and soda. “You can go to various drive-ins and get a different experience,” Kopp says. “You go to [Bengie’s] and he has a set of rules and pretty adamant about his rules; he’s got a large capacity and large screen. We have two screens, but only 434 cars. In comparison to some of the other drive-ins we’re pretty small. We each have unique ownership personalities. You go to an indoor theater it’s basically the same … [but] with the drive-in you get the flavor of the ownership.”
Kopp, who runs the drive-in with his wife, Megan, is a former Library of Congress employee who previously owned a drive-in in Raleigh, N.C. For a time, the couple commuted back and forth and ran both theaters, but have since sold the Raleigh location.
He grew up outside Pittsburgh, Pa., going to drive-ins with his family as a child, and has loved them ever since. “My dad and my mom would pile my brother, sister and me into the car and take us to one of the drive-ins,” he says. “That was our form of family entertainment. We all kind of loved it.”
The Family Drive-In Theatre operates March through mid-December on weekends, and daily during summer months. This summer marks their 60th season, and Kopp says they plan to host special events to celebrate, which will be posted on their website.
Something that sets The Family Drive-In Theatre apart is the use of speaker poles for a truly vintage experience. “Primarily the reason drive-ins dropped them is that they’re hard to repair,” Kopp says, adding that he regularly patrols to perform maintenance. “I’ve found a good supply of those parts and am pretty confident I’ll be able to keep the speakers at my place for a long time to come.” Most modern drive-ins use FM transmitters to send the film audio to the cars—both Kopp and Hardy suggest bringing a radio to avoid draining the car’s batteries.
Dead batteries aren’t the only problem drive-ins encounter, not when you consider navigating the booking and rules set by the movie studios. Drive-in owners have to not only decide which films their audience wants to see, but also what the studios will let them see. Studios sometimes refuse to let their films be paired with those of another studio.
Another factor is the minimum number of weeks a drive-in will be required to show a movie, which can cause headaches as well. “It’s a minimum of two weeks,” Kopp says. “For single screen drive-ins, a longer term means if you get a movie in that doesn’t do well you get stuck with it for awhile. A three-week agreement doesn’t really affect me the way it does for a single-screen.”
Hardy says that problem played into their booking already this year. “We had intentions of opening May 6 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Hardy says. “However, what they wanted and what we chose to give them did not align. The term they wanted [was for] us to play it four weeks consecutively. The terms were ridiculous, so we opted to not show that that weekend.”
Alhough it comes with challenges, Hardy says the nights out under the stars make it worthwhile. “You can come early and enjoy a beautiful moonlit night,” she says. “You can sit out among the stars and watch two features for the price of one.”