I went to Bengies’ season opener, and all I got was this crummy photo

Bengies drive-in marquee at twilight.

Bengies marquee at twilight. Photo by Neon Michael from the Carload Flickr group.

We’ve done a lot of talking about Bengies, Maryland’s only remaining drive-in theater. I hope it sticks around for a long time. Earlier this month, I happened to be visiting Washington DC and was pleasantly surprised to be able to drop by for Bengies’ 2013 season opener. But I didn’t go in. Let me explain.

First I visited Bengies’ web site, which is where I learned the good news that the place would be open while I was nearby. On its Home page, Bengies hauled out the all-caps to say “Click Here for things EVERYONE needs to know BEFORE they arrive.” So I did.

First of all, getting pictures for Carload was going to be a problem. “No photographing, image capturing, or audio recording anywhere on the premises, this includes the entrance road.” Yikes! And that was the friendly version compared to the House Rules page: “If we see any sort of camera, video recorder, or cell phone with the capabilities of taking pictures being used to capture a picture OF ANYTHING, you and the party with you, will leave immediately without a refund. NONE of these DEVICES may be used AT this theatre FOR ANY REASON.” All-caps and bold! Double yikes!

Over in the FAQ page, there’s a long explanation of why they’re so sensitive about all that. To summarize, they had some bad experiences, then some folks were posting Bengies photos on the internet without permission, and somebody even recorded the owner’s voice and used it “in ways you could not even imagine.” You’re right, I can’t imagine that. To summarize, “You may record NOTHING you may capture an image of NOTHING.” Ooh-kay then.

As I prowled around the web site, I found similar stern warnings about any number of other inflexible drive-in policies. Mind you, I’m a firm believer in letting any business set its own rules. There’s nothing wrong, per se, about all these all-caps rules, and anyone who patronizes such a business should go along with them. But their tone made me wonder whether Bengies would be an unpleasant place to visit. So I didn’t. I stood in the parking lots of neighboring businesses and photographed the glow of the Bengies sign against the turquoise twilight sky. Then I grabbed a snack at the McDonalds drive-through and drove back to my hotel.

It’s Drive-In Reopening Season

Skyview Drive-In marquee and screenWith the last weekend of March upon us, it’s time to welcome the return of several drive-ins to active duty.

The Belleville (IL) News-Democrat reports that the Skyview is scheduled to reopen today. The Essex-Middle River (MD) Patch reports that Bengies will open on or before April 12. And our old friend the Harvest Moon (Gibson City IL) will reopen today, according to WAND, central Illinois’s news leader.

Among Colorado drive-ins, the Mesa reopened last week, and the Holiday Twin joins it today. Isn’t spring wonderful?

Did DI owners speculate on land? Not all of them

A few weeks ago when the Cottage Grove DI closed, I included a link to a Minnesota Public Radio interview with a local drive-in historian. If you listened to the interview, you learned that one of this guy’s main points was that the wave of drive-in popularity was really a wave of land speculation. According to him, sharp real estate guys guessed that big tracts of suburban land would be valuable within a decade or two, so they built drive-ins to occupy those spaces to get a trickle of income while they waited for Walmart to be invented.

That’s a really interesting theory that I hadn’t sufficiently considered before hearing it. In retrospect, I’m sure a certain percentage of drive-in landowners had this in mind. (Note that the owner of the land was sometimes different than the operator of the drive-in.) But what was that percentage? Were the majority of late-50s drive-ins on speculators’ land? Or was it just a small fraction? I suspect that quantifying the motives of landowners half a century ago will always be an impossible task.

What got me thinking about this was the quiet announcement halfway down a page in The Daily Record (Baltimore MD) that someone is building a townhouse development on the site of the old North Point DI site in Dundalk MD. As you can see by the Google satellite image above, taken in 2012, nothing of consequence has been done to this site since the drive-in closed. According to the Daily Record story, “(t)he last picture show there was in 1982.”

I’ll grant you that among the thousands of drive-ins that proliferated in the 1950s and 60s, at least some of them were built because of land speculation. But I don’t think that paying property taxes on idle land for 30 years was part of that plan. The North Point is just the most recent example that shows that if speculation was the goal, some of these drive-in landowners didn’t do a very good job of it.