Catonsville drive-in theater will soon fade to black

October 08, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

This New Year's Eve will be especially poignant for Bill Brehm and for thousands of other Baltimoreans who have enjoyed his family business for nearly four decades.

That is his target date to close the Edmondson Drive-In Theatre permanently to make way for a massive Home Depot home improvement and garden center at Baltimore National Pike and the Beltway.

Moviegoers will lose a place of entertainment, and Sunday flea market browsers one of their happiest hunting grounds, but Mr. Brehm, 35, said that he'll lose part of his life.

"It's a piece of history," he said.

"I've watched more than my share of shows down there. I used to play on that playground down there. I've been here my whole life."

But economics mandated the decision to sell the 13-acre Catonsville property, which has been a drive-in theater since 1954 and a Sunday flea market since the early 1970s, he said.

Mr. Brehm and Home Depot officials would not disclose the price of the lease-purchase agreement.

"We've had offers for the drive-in for 20 years. We stayed when others went, but property values are increasing, the area is built up now and it's hard to keep such a large tract open in an area like this," he said.

That's been the story for years, as drive-in screens have darkened one by one, particularly in the East, where the climate makes the theaters seasonal.

Jim Kozak, of the National Association of Theatre Owners in Los Angeles, said drive-ins like the Edmondson were built in what were then distant suburbs. Urban growth has enveloped them.

"That land is too valuable for a seasonal operation," Mr. Kozak said. However, he added, in Sun Belt states where they operate year-round, drive-ins remain as popular as ever. His group lists 910 drive-ins nationwide and six in Maryland. But Maryland theater owners and other local officials were hard pressed to count six theaters.

Closing the Edmondson will leave the Baltimore area with two weekend drive-ins: the Bengies, at 3417 Eastern Blvd., and the Bel Air, on Route 22, Churchville. In the 1950s and '60s heyday of Baltimore-area drive-ins, from 500 to 1,000 cars every night lined the asphalt terraces sweeping down to the Edmondson's 108- )) by 42-foot screen, Mr. Brehm said.

It was the cheapest way for families to see a show and save on baby sitter fees. And for teen-age lovers, the local "passion pit" offered a few hours of privacy behind steamed-up car windows.

The 250 to 350 cars on any weekend evening now don't even scratch capacity, so the movie operation has become unprofitable, Mr. Brehm said. The theater and flea market will continue while the weather cooperates but Dec. 31 is the deadline, he said.

Built for 1,200 cars, the drive-in was reduced to 950 spaces in 1965 when Mr. Brehm's father, George, who retired last year, built the Westview Cinema on what for years had been a wooded section of the tract.

In the early 1970s, to offset declining drive-in attendance, George Brehm set up the flea market that is now one of the area's largest.

A nice-weather Sunday attracts 6,000 to 8,000 browsers to inspect the offerings of 200 to 300 vendors, some of whom are in line before midnight Saturday to secure a good selling location, Bill Brehm said.

"A lot of people are going to be very sad when it closes," said caterer Stanley Lukas, 55, of Parkville, as he arranged the food concession for a recent Friday night show.

Six cars were in line when the box office opened and as 7:45 p.m. show time arrived, several dozen were scattered around the vast lot.

Larry Pumphrey, 30, and his wife, Lisa, 22, drove up from Glen Burnie to see "Terminator 2" and "Double Impact." "All the drive-ins in our area are closed. We just like the privacy, which you don't get in a regular movie, and you can smoke and have snacks," Mr. Pumphrey said. "There's a lot of nostalgia, too."

He and his wife recalled attending drive-in theaters as children with their parents.

Tom and Jean Lichtenthal of Reisterstown became parents 13 )) months ago and have discovered what their parents learned three decades before: It's tough to get out when you have little ones.

Their drive-in visit was only their second movie outing since Laura's birth.

"It's so easy," Mrs. Lichtenthal said as she arranged a blanket for her daughter in the family station wagon. "You can't take a family to the [indoor] movies now, it's so expensive," her husband added.

Walter Morrow, 60, and his wife, Joyce, from Columbia, said they have visited the Edmondson Drive-In several times a year since the 1960s when they brought their children. "It's casual, there's no hassle," said Mr. Morrow, who is retired.

"We're really rebelling against the high indoor prices, $6.50 apiece," Mrs. Morrow said. Drive-in admission was $3 a person.

The threat of rain and the chill winds held down the number of browsers and vendors at Sunday's flea market, but it still pulsed for those who came. The basic premise is that "one man's junk is another man's treasure," and the variety of new and used goods is endless.

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