Drive-in movie theaters have been on their last legs in America for decades, but don’t tell that to Jim Kopp. Five years ago, Kopp, 57, decided to fulfill his dreams and jump into the business, and has since taken over operations at two drive-in theaters on the East Coast.
“I learned to love drive-ins as a child growing up in Pittsburgh. It was a big family event to go there on the weekends,” Kopp said. “I’ve always had that passion. As an adult, I even decided to photograph drive-in theaters throughout the country to record them.”
For most of his life, Kopp’s interest in drive-ins amounted to nothing more than a curious hobby that he pursued in his free time. He spent 22 years of his life working at the Library of Congress as a logistics manager in their warehouse.
Then, in 2005, he discovered a North Carolina drive-in theater was being auctioned off on eBay and bought it for just $22,000. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater, located in the small town of Henderson, is the oldest drive-in theater in the state, and one of only a handful still in operation there. It was first opened back in 1949 with a screening of the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Then, in 1977, the original owners decided to sell the theater to another family, who in turn sold it off in 2004. The man who bought it quickly found himself overwhelmed by the burden of running a drive-in and decided to put it up for sale on eBay.
The price was certainly a bargain, but by the time Kopp bought it, Raleigh Road was in need of some serious repairs. Over the years, Kopp estimates that he threw down $300,000 to $400,000 to repaint, fix the screen tower, add in a playground and clean up the grounds. He continued working his day job in Washington, D.C., and would commute to the theater on the weekends to run the show. On top of all that, Kopp struggled for a while to build an audience. “In our first year, a lot of folks didn’t realize that the theater was open again,” he said. Fortunately for Kopp, he earned some favorable reviews in the local press and is now proud of the fact that he had 78 cars attend a movie screening on New Year’s Eve. Of course, while this may be a good business day for a small town drive-in, it would likely be considered pitiful for most multiplexes across the country.