By Colleen Wilson, Capital News Service
Bengies Drive-In Theatre is a sentimental time capsule for movie patrons – it’s the last surviving drive-in theater in Maryland, and one of only about 360 remaining nationwide.
Parked prominently on the eastern Baltimore County property are a 1950 Chevrolet Fleetline Fastback and a 1958 Ford Edsel, reminiscent of Bengies’ 1956 opening.
Drive-in theaters are historical reminders of the era when automobile purchases spiked following World War II and the nation’s love affair with cars blossomed, according to Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Today, D. Edward Vogel runs the outdoor movie theater that his father and uncle built. His father, Jack Vogel, engineered and built the screen that still stands today and is the biggest in the country, according to D. Vogel.
Bengies is nestled just off fast-paced Eastern Boulevard in Middle River. Its eye-catching red, white and blue sign with traditional letters spelling out the featured films of the week stands in stark contrast to the commercial buildings that have sprouted up around it.
Destined for the Drive-In
Vogel chuckles that he was born to run Bengies, and officially purchased the property from his father in 2007.
“I remember my dad laughing at me when I told him that I was going to exercise the [lease] agreement. And I said, ‘Well, why are you laughing? Because I’m going to be poor the rest of my life or because the Bengies is going to stay forever?’ And he said, ‘Both’ and ‘good luck.’”
He explained that his involvement with the movie business was inevitable.
“For some reason, when you get into it, it really bites you,” Vogel said. “It gets into your blood and you have a hard time moving away from it.”
In fact, if he considered himself a businessman, Vogel said he would have walked away from the drive-in years ago and made money by selling the property.
By preserving his drive-in – at high financial and emotional costs – Vogel is preserving an establishment that is “mom-and-pop, it’s individual, it’s very special,” he said. It’s also a piece of American movie history.
“There is an intrinsic reward in a value you can get from such a place, that you could not buy with all the money if you had it. … [Bengies is] here because I keep it here,” Vogel said.
Today, Bengies practically runs him, Vogel said in an email. The 5-foot-7 Italian man can still be seen going in circles around the drive-in lot coordinating every detail before showtime via walkie-talkie.
When asked what are his favorite aspects of the drive-in, Vogel responded without hesitation: “Sunset. The crowd. And starting the show. And operating it.”
A Dwindling Breed
Bengies is the only remaining drive-in theater in the state after 45 Maryland outdoor theaters shut their doors over the years, according to drive-ins.com, an online drive-in database.
“I’m kind of amazed I’m the last man standing,” Vogel said.
At one time there were five or six drive-in theaters in the Baltimore area, but maintaining a seasonal business is no easy feat, according to John Vincent, president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
“Some drive-ins were done in by property taxes because it’s a low-intensity use of the land on a seasonal basis,” said Vincent, owner of Wellfleet Drive-In and Cinemas in Cape Cod, Mass. He said there are about 360 drive-ins still operating in the U.S. – about 4,000 fewer than the peak in 1957.
Dixon explained that outdoor theaters are in lower demand because their “theatrical exhibition” can’t be viewed on 21st century devices and tablets. “Today, people are platform agnostic. They’re not willing to see it. Whatever is most convenient is the most important thing.”
Before the late 1980s, Vincent said drive-in theaters would circulate film reels, or “prints,” on a two or three day basis. However, multiplex theaters that housed multiple screens were on the rise and proved to be significantly more profitable than one- or two-screen drive-ins.
“Then in the ’90s, drive-ins got rediscovered by the studios, in addition to the patrons,” Vincent said. “They [studios] realized the grossing potential of the drive-in and it just perpetuated itself and people started coming back and we’ve been on the recovery.”
Vincent also said some drive-ins actually reopened and are continuing to do so gradually, but that they won’t, and shouldn’t, return to numbers in the thousands.
“I can’t say I’d want 4,300 in the United States today because we’d be on top of each other and we wouldn’t be making any money. … That being said … it’d be nice to see some come back,” he said.
However, Dixon suggests that drive-ins will likely continue to spiral downward due to the increased demand for digital conversion – a transition Dixon thinks is not economically feasible for already struggling businesses.
‘Convert or Die’
“All my life I wanted a Mercedes Benz 600SL convertible,” Vogel said wistfully. “Unfortunately, it’s parked in the projection room and it says ‘Barco’ on the back end of it.”
That “Mercedes” is actually an $80,000 Barco digital projector Vogel installed this summer. The luxury item was financed through a deal with the Cinema Buying Group, a purchasing program within the National Theatre Owners Association, and Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., a digital technology company. In February, a program between the companies was established to help independent drive-in theaters acquire digital projectors and repay loans.
It’s a “convert or die” industry now, Dixon said about the necessity to switch from the antiquated 35mm film to the big, black digital projection box.
Drive-in businesses like Vogel’s needed the investment assistance in order to fund the transition to digital, and Vincent and Dixon said participating in the purchasing program is a must for many drive-ins that can’t afford the projector on their own.
In the meantime, Vogel is also involved in a pending lawsuit with his neighbor, Royal Farms. Vogel claims the gas station’s lit-up sign, built in 2008, distracts his customers and has kept Vogel from building a second screen. A jury awarded Vogel $838,000 in 2012, but a judge dismissed the verdict. Vogel is currently awaiting a court date for the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
‘The Bengie Effect’
Despite its woes, Bengies has a loyal legion of customers who have stuck by the drive-in, now in its 58th season.
Lisa Ianuzzi has been coming to Bengies for 10 years. The veteran patron was dressed in layers of clothing for the chilly October night – complete with a Bengies T-shirt.
Before show time, Ianuzzi described what she called “The Bengie Effect.”
“After you see the same movie four, five, six times you don’t come for the movie any more, you come for the people,” the Catonsville resident said.
Longtime customers like Ianuzzi are special to Vogel, and he said there are too many to count.
“You will have anybody from age 0 up to 80 on this field,” Vogel said. “I have watched people date, get married, have children [and] have those children come back.”
The Tree House
It is the first crisp, fall evening for Bengies and the night’s triple features are: The 1984 classic, “Gremlins,” the recently-released film, “Gravity,” and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Birds” – a fitting mix for the Halloween season.
As cars are steadily rolling in, Led Zeppelin is playing over the loudspeaker and people are lining up for popcorn and soda.
Located above the concession building in a room about the size of a decently-spaced tree house, Vogel is playing the final song before showtime; today it’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
As the song plays out, Vogel prepares the 35mm film reel – which he still uses and that sits next to its newer, digital counterpart – for the opening announcements.
Except for a lit-up square screen, the otherwise dark-looking Barco hums in the background. Next to it, the dated projector’s wheel clicks in rotation as the celluloid film threads through. Vogel is whisking around, stepping over and around the equipment with impeccable precision. He displays a childlike fervor to complete all the tasks as his favorite part, the “operating” part, is nearing. Outside the tree house, the sky has become completely dark.
Vogel picks up the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind attention and attendance: Let’s roll.”