Nov. 4: Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Middle River MD

It’s Day 308 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. With pretty clear sailing on a rainy Saturday, it took me only two hours to drive from the Delsea Drive-In in Vineland NJ to Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River MD, just east of Baltimore.

Bengies is the last drive-in theater in Maryland, and is frequently packed in the summer. According to the Washington Post, it was built in 1955-56 by brothers Jack, Paul, and Hank Vogel. The area had been named for former president Benjamin Harrison, and the drive-in took that name, opening as Bengie’s (with an apostrophe) on June 6, 1956. The drive-in dropped the apostrophe when it changed its marquee in the early 1970s.

The screen at Bengies is huge – 120 feet by 52 feet, and can support over 1000 cars although its normal capacity is 750. The drive-in has a separate web page dedicated to its assertion that it’s “the biggest continuously operated drive-in screen in the USA.” (Bengies also has a separate web page devoted to its unhappiness with The Baltimore Sun’s words and actions in 2000. But I digress.) I’ll beat back one more contender – the web site for Coldwater MI’s Capri Drive-In Theater claims its main screen is 150 feet wide, but when I asked, they agreed it was just 115 feet.

This drive-in was built and designed by architectural engineer Jack Vogel. (Some of his later architectural plans for Bengies are in the Library of Congress.) According to Constructing Image, Identity, and Place, issue IX (April 2003), “Vogel was so concerned with efficiency that he even designed the women’s rest rooms with ladies’ urinals, which are still functioning”.

Kerry Segrave wrote in his book Drive-In Theaters that in 1976 Bengies narrowly fought off a proposal to prohibit showing movies where they could be seen by motorists. “This ozoner used to screen X-rated movies but discontinued them on May 4, 1976, after numerous complaints, before the proposed bill was introduced.”

Current owner D. Edward Vogel has been working at Bengies since he was nine years old, according to a 2009 CNN article. That would have been about when his mother married Jack Vogel in the Post’s timeline. Capital News Service wrote that he formally purchased the drive-in in 2007.

In recent years, Bengies has tangled with Royal Farms, which opened a convenience store across the street. The drive-in sued in 2010, claiming that the light from the store was interfering with the drive-in. In June 2012, a jury agreed to the tune of $838,000, according to The Baltimore Sun, but the judge later threw out the verdict. The Maryland Daily Record reported in November 2014 that an appeals court let that decision stand.

“I believe every drive-in theater takes on the personality of the owner,” Vogel said in the Capital News Service segment that is the YouTube video of the day. Watch it and you’ll see the apostrophe in Bengie’s on the side of the concession stand, which roughly matched the way the marquee used to look. If you want some irony, also check out a YouTube video about Bengies shot from that Royal Farms convenience store across the street.

This drizzly evening was a retro triple feature marking the close of Bengies’ regular season, although it posted on its Facebook page that “We have a few off season events in the works for Black Friday and a Holiday DouBBle feature in early December. If the right right movie (and weather) comes along in the mean time we may open as well.”

Miles Today / Total: 102 / 34787 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: The Sandlot / 187

Nearby Restaurant: When I’m in the Baltimore area, I need to find a restaurant that sells crabs. Schultz’s Crab House is one of the closest candidates to Bengies, and it might be the best. It’s been around longer than the drive-in serving up lots of seafood. I had the backfin crab cake and fried shrimp platter with some cold beer on the side. Food like this in such a comfortable atmosphere makes it easy to see why Schultz’s has lasted.

Where I Virtually Stayed: One of the closest cluster of hotels to Bengies is by the White Marsh area near Baltimore. One of those hotels is a Hampton Inn, so that’s the end of that search. After such a rainy day, I wanted the hotel equivalent of comfort food, and the familiar features of a Hampton always do the trick. My room didn’t have a fridge or microwave, but at least there were cookies to greet me at check-in and the standard Hampton breakfast in the morning. Ready for another drive!

Only in Middle River: Next door, Rosedale MD is the home of Cateraptasaurus, a 12-foot, 9-inch sculpture made entirely from used tractor parts. Built by Derek Arnold, it’s stationed outside the offices of Alban Cat, a Caterpillar equipment dealership.

Next stop: Goochland Drive-In Theater, Hadensville VA.

Capital News Service celebrates Bengies

Colleen Wilson of the Capital News Service gave us a fine, lengthy article all about how well Bengies Drive-In (Middle River MD) is doing these days. I can’t tell what the occasion is, except that Bengies is still going strong and showing movies this late in the season. But I’m sure glad she did. Not only do we get to read that fine time capsule of owner D. Edward Vogel and Bengies in October 2013, we also get to see this YouTube video, a slideshow set to Vogel’s theatrical announcements, and a superb map that mostly accurately shows where active drive-ins still exist. (It’s easy to overlook the Comanche in Buena Vista.)

The best quote in the video is right up front. “I believe every drive-in theater takes on the personality of the owner,” Vogel said. But be sure to watch the whole thing and check out the CNS article. And remember to change your clocks for the end of Daylight Saving Time this Sunday!

Here’s how to listen to the Bourbon Drive-In

Bourbon Drive-In marquee and screen next to railroad tracks

photo by Bill Eichelberger, used by permission

Brenna Angel of National Public Radio member station WUKY presented a nice report this week about the Bourbon Drive-In near Paris KY. It’s always nice to get the sights of the drive-in (and there’s an excellent, unrelated drive-in photo on WUKY’s page), but it’s a rare gift to be able to hear the sounds of the drive-in. There was a film projector tick-a-ticking, a 57-year-old popcorn machine popping, and co-owner Patricia Earlywine talking about getting the drive-in spirit “in your blood”.

There’s a short clip of D. Edward Vogel, board member of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and owner of Bengies Drive-In of Maryland. (Good thing Angel did that over the phone and not at Bengies or she’d be in trouble.) Angel mentions a studio program to reimburse some costs for converting from film to digital projection, but that the Bourbon couldn’t use it because it requires a high-speed internet connection. That’s the first I’d heard of that; I’d think that dishNet satellite broadband might work.

At the end, Angel shows that she gets it. “Going to a drive-in movie theater isn’t really about the movie,” she says. “It’s about the experience of being there.” Amen to that! So go over to that WUKY page and don’t read the report, click the play button and listen to the sounds of the drive-in.