The Bengies Drive-In Theatre marquee, ca. 1956 (Photo courtesy D. Vogel)
Remember the days when going to the movies was an outdoor experience?
We’re not talking about those free outdoor films shown in Little Italy, outside the American Visionary Art Museum and elsewhere. Wonderful as those outdoor cinema experiences are, the real movies-under-the-stars experience involves a huge screen, a few hundred parked cars, sound being pumped into your car and a separate snackbar building that teems with food possibilities.
We speak, of course, of Middle River’s Bengies Drive-In, the sole survivor of a ’50s moviegoing craze that today seems as outdated and quaint as pay telephones and black-and-white TV.
In a car outside the Bengies’ projection booth, a group of theater employees — including manager Hank Vogel, second from right — prepare to hit the surrounding roads to promote ‘The Unearthly,” a 1957 sci-fi flick starring John Carradine and Tor Johnson, one of the stars of the immortally bad “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” (Photo courtesy D. Vogel)
The Bengies turned a spry 58 this month, meaning it’s outlived dozens of its predecessors, places like the Timonium and the Edmondson, the Carlin and the Elkridge, the Super 170 and the Governor Ritchie. Alone, it keeps Baltimore’s drive-in candle burning. And despite a continuing feud with a nearby Royal Farms over light encroachment – a jury ordered the convenience store to pay for a barrier to keep light away from the drive-in; a judge vacated the verdict and that decision is now on appeal – hundreds of cars show up every weekend, filled with families enjoying this throwback to when their parents (or maybe their grandparents) were young.
In the days before home air-conditioning became widespread, drive-in movie theaters were the preferred choice for spending hot summer nights. Mom, Dad and however many kids could fit into the family car could all check out the latest movies and partake of what was invariably an extensive snack menu (the Bengies’ snackbar happily maintains that tradition; no theater concession stand can rival its variety). Many drive-ins came complete with kid playgrounds, in case the young ones weren’t as enamored of the big screen as Mom and Dad.
Manager Hank Vogel (right) is presented with the Bengies’ first concession check, representing profits from food sold at the theater. Vogel’s nephew, D. Edward Vogel, who now operates the Bengies, believes the man on the left is George Brehm, who ran the Edmondson Drive-In Theatre, which opened only months before the Bengies. (Photo courtesy D. Vogel)
Of course, some things at the Bengies have changed over the years. You no longer hang speakers on your car door (the movie sound comes through your radio) and portable heaters are no longer available to help keep you warm on cold nights.
On its opening-day program, June 6, 1956, the Bengies featured an all-Cinemascope double-feature of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter in “White Feather” (a Western – weren’t they all in the ’50s? – about a peace mission to the Cheyenne) and Errol Flynn as a 14-century knight in “The Warriors.” This weekend, it’ll be playing “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “22 Jump Street.” How times change…
One-year-old Nathan Dunn snacks on french fries before the start of “Johnny Neutron: Boy Genius” at the Bengies Drive-In Theatre. His parents, Ken and Stacy Dunn of Columbia, have been bringing him to the theater since he was 4 weeks old. (Sam Friedman, Baltimore Sun Media group photo, April 27, 2002)