Stuck in time

Sept. 26, 2005, midnight | By Alexis Egan | 15 years, 6 months ago

Despite challenges, the largest east coast drive-in maintains popularity

Car radios blast loudly, immersing the expansive grounds in the soundtrack of "Charlie and Chocolate Factory" with literal surround sound. The aroma of popcorn fills the air, as tots are herded back to cars by weary traffic directors, who are glad that the film is finally starting. Viewers sit in cars, on lawn chairs and atop picnic blankets, attentively watching the main attraction. Stuck in time, guests have no idea that they are living history, enjoying an evening in Maryland's last drive-in, Bengies – an artifact from a bygone era. One of only 402 drive-in theaters left in the United States, Bengies draws viewers from all over the East Coast.

Timeless through the decades

Cruising past the theater's drive-through ticket stand feels like entering another time period, one at least half a century in the past. Even though the paint is peeling on the concession stand and the roads are well-worn, the theater has the electric atmosphere of a recently opened amusement park.

Any viewer can stay the whole night for $7-8. Although the theater normally plays three films per a night, Bengies's semi-annual "Dusk-til-Dawn" special showcases up to five movies. Parking is easy to find: the smaller the car, the closer to the screen it can be. But even the cars in the far back still have an excellent view of the 120-foot screen.

With a plenty of room per parking space, there is always enough room to set up chairs, blankets and pillows. Before the show begins, which varies by the time of the sunset, most moviegoers visit the snack bar, which is surrounded by classic cars from the 50s and 60s. While adults talk and wander the grounds, young children play on the aged playground at the base of the screen.

A rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner begins the evening. Cartoons and antique movie previews follow, signaling wanderers to return to their cars. Features vary from family friendly films like "Herbie" and "Madagascar" to scary thrillers like "Red Eye" and "The Ring Two." Generally, an animated film is followed by more mature films for teenagers, though even the cheesiest kiddie flick is exceptional on the massive screen. Once or twice a week, Bengies shows an extra film, generally a horror flick or R-rated movie for night owls.

Bengies's enthralling atmosphere epitomizes the essence of 1950s flair with its' unique films and plenty of individuality. The theater had been around for years, witnessing the rise, and fall, of theaters across the United States.

Blast to the past

The increase in car ownership during the 1950s spurred the construction of drive-in theaters all over the country. The theaters enticed viewers with promises of inexpensive fun for the whole family, making them immensely popular. Those golden days for drive-ins – with as many as 5,000 operating in 1958 – passed in the 1960s. Now only 402 theaters are open as of June 2005, according to the nations largest drive-in coalition, the United Drive-In Theaters Owner Association (UDITOA). Over 92 percent have closed due to lack of interest, while others have closed due to the expenses of maintaining large plots of land.

"In areas where the real estate is extremely valuable, the theaters can sell the property and make more money from the sale of the property than the operation of the theater could make in many years," says Chris Erwin, the Corresponding Secretary for UDITOA, explaining why theaters nationwide closed.

Despite these struggles, Bengies Drive-In, located on the outskirts of Baltimore, is entering its 50th year of continuous operation. Since its opening in June 1956, Bengies has entertained thousands of viewers with dusk-til-dawn festivals and special Halloween features. Despite the seemingly successful history of Bengies, the theater came dangerously close to shutting down six years ago.

When attendance dipped in 1999, the theater announced that the coming summer would be its last. Remarkably, the WB TV network helped restore Bengies's popularity by filming an episode of the short lived drama "Young Americans" at Bengies. Since then, Bengies has also been featured in Artisan Entertainment's 2000 film "Cecil B. Demented," a drama starring Melanie Griffith as a kidnapped diva forced to act in a campy film production.

One of a kind

For Erwin, drive-in theaters have unlimited appeal. "The freedom one has at a drive-in...stretch out, talk, walk around without bothering others," says Erwin.

Blair junior Julie Sandberg-Bernard, a Bengies fan since elementary school, agrees with Erwin in that drive-in theaters have a unique atmosphere that appeals to all sorts of people. To Sandberg-Bernard, Bengies's appeal is the "outdoors, cultural experience, and you don't spend as much money." Often she chooses to see mainstream movies there, rather than at her local cinaplex, she explains.

After seeing any of the dozens of films that Bengies shows each year, viewers long for another trip to the theater, its unique appeal drawing them in. As soon as the night is over and viewers slowly start to trickle out, plans are being made to come back again. Bengies's owner, who also doubles as the announcer, asks the viewers to flash their lights if they enjoy the film; the lot is illuminated at the end of most films. Children whine, wishing they could stay for the later movie, while parents gently tell them "next time." Those staying for the next movie take a last-minute trip to the concession stand before it closes at midnight, enjoying the emptying theater.

As soon as filmgoers drive out of the theater, thoughts pop into their heads about the experience. "I love it all. The nostalgia, the freedom, the experience, the movies," says Erwin, recalling his favorite parts about the drive-in theaters. Bengies's undeniable allure has newcomers and old fans returning time and again, making this 50s emblem a part of their summer tradition for years to come.

For show times, prices and directions, visit Bengies's web site.

Alexis Egan. Alexis is a (very) short junior, who is very pleased to be writing for Chips Online with all her friends. Along with writing, her other hobbies are playing soccer, reading about Mount Everest and listening to any Irish music. Her favorite movie is The Princess … More »

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