Word of possible sale lures many to drive-in


October 10, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Since opening night on May 28, 1954, customers of the Edmondson Drive-In Theatre have driven down a lane off U.S. 40 into a cement glen with a big screen at the bottom and enough thrills to keep them returning for generations.

That first night, 435 people paid 60 cents each to see "Riding Shotgun" and "Fearless Fagan." On recent nights, even more have been paying the going rate of $3 to see what may turn out to be one of the last picture shows at the Edmondson.

Since word got around recently that a deal was in the works to turn the Catonsville drive-in site into a Home Depot home and garden center, the crowds have increased and many customers have begun to lament its presumed passing.

Walter Rohoblt, a projectionist there for the last six years, compares it to the surging sentiment for Memorial Stadium, which opened the same year as the Edmondson. "People want to be one of the last ones in the place before it closes," Rohoblt said.

Thomas Ciambruschini, 30, of New Windsor, returned to the Edmondson last Saturday night for the first time since he was in high school. He and his wife sat in lawn chairs. Three of their children sprawled on blankets, while a fourth took a bottle in his arms.

If the baby fussed, the cries dispersed into the atmosphere. Others brought picnics and beer. Many sat in the flatbeds of trucks or on cars to hoot and cheer whenever some muscle man hero blew away another bad guy. No one seemed to mind.

"We don't get harassed here," said one young man with a beer in each fist. He had come in a caravan of six cars filled with youths from Catonsville. "It's a hang-out place," he said.

Many of the Edmondson's distinctive details remain, including the classic, angular marquee on U.S. 40 just west of the Beltway.

"In a way to me, it's almost a historical site," said Tom Watson, 21, who was wistful about losing the theater he had patronized since his parents took him there as a toddler.

Gone, however, is the merry-go-round and 20-foot-high Ferris wheel that used to entertain children when families arrived early to get a space for the show.

Gone too are the speakers that customers used to hook inside their car windows and that John Wright, a projectionist there in the early 1960s, was continually repairing. He said that a whole line of speakers would short out whenever someone tried to swipe a speaker or forgot to disconnect it before leaving.

One customer who made work for him was Jack Allen, 55, who said the speaker broke his window when he drove off one night.

"We used to go as a crowd, sneak a few people in the trunk," said Allen, who started going to the Edmondson in the mid-1950s as a teen-ager from West Baltimore behind the wheel of a 1940 Chevy. "You went to make out. Yes, you did."

When a date was hot and the weather chilly, "you had to defog the windows," he said, but there were rules of decorum about that. "You didn't bother anybody with their windows all fogged up," Allen said, "even if it was a friend's car."

The Edmondson was built among wooded stretches of U.S. 40 in the pre-Beltway 1950s, in anticipation that the new and growing suburban neighborhoods nearby would bring development. The drive-in had spaces for 1,200 cars at first and was open every night, except when snow fell too heavily for the staff to plow it fast enough. But the indoor Westview Cinemas complex, which sprang up next door and subsequently expanded, devoured chunks of the Edmondson lot.

William Brehm, whose father George Brehm managed the Edmondson from the beginning, said the drive-in now holds about 700 cars and attracts 300 on a good night. Nowadays it opens only Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and closes altogether during the cold winter months. The Edmondson and the Westview are part of the same company, of which William Brehm is now general manager.

If the Edmondson closes, the Bengies on Eastern Boulevard and the Bel Air in Churchville will be the only drive-ins left in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Drive-ins across the country have declined from about 3,800 in the years spanning the mid-1960s and '70s, to fewer than 1,000 today, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures.

In the Edmondson's heyday, William Brehm said, concession sales of pizza rivaled the volume at Memorial Stadium, as did the promotional antics. He remembers a pair of monkeys being raffled off under the screen to herald the coming of a movie that had a monkey in its cast.

Business began to change for most drive-ins during the late 1960s and early '70s, when the children who used to romp in the drive-in playgrounds had grown to teen-age customers. They predominated in the audience and their cinematic tastes tended toward horror.

Among the big money-makers at the Edmondson during that transition were "Blood Feast" and "1001 Maniacs," Brehm said. "That was the beginning of the bloody-type pictures."

Even before the transition, teen-agers were warned about drive-ins. A wire service story that appeared in The Sun in 1964 offered tips on drive-in dating.

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