Surviving theaters hoping for big screen's revival

April 11, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

They are men with a mission. Like those old-time evangelists rounding up souls in small-town revival tents, they are here to win converts. They want to save Maryland's two remaining drive-in theaters.

The night of the drive-in isn't over by a long shot, says Bob Wagner, owner of the Bel Air Drive-In Theater in Churchville. Mr. Wagner, 37, says he can still pack 'em in by offering double features for less than the price of one show at an indoor movie house. The drive-in, which opened for the season last weekend, usually charges $5 a person, with children under 12 admitted free.

Bengies Drive-In Theatre between Middle River and Chase is also determined to survive, says D. Edward Vogel, who leases the property from his father.

Drive-ins typically close during the winter, reopening in the spring. Bengies did not close this year, but kept operating on weekends, fueled with in-car heaters (they slip over windows and use Bengies' electricity to keep cars warm) and desperation.

"I was broke," Mr. Vogel says.

Mr. Vogel, 34, says he returned home in 1988 from Cincinnati, where he worked as a district sales manager for a movie chain, to see the once-proud Bengies in virtual ruins. The family-owned business gave up control of the drive-in in the '70s and leased it to a company that still showed movies but did little maintenance.

"I took one look and it broke my heart, so I put in an offer," he says.

Mr. Vogel says his father, Jack K. Vogel, and two uncles opened Bengies in 1956. His dad, the only surviving partner, leases him ++ the property, but it is strictly a business arrangement.

A race against time

Bengies, which holds 700 cars, sits on 6 acres of prime waterfront property. Mr. Vogel says he is in a race against time to generate enough money to buy the drive-in and preserve it. He is worried that developers with deep pockets will express interest in the property once the economy improves, though it is not now on the market.

"The thought of losing the drive-in used to tear me up, but I don't get emotional about it anymore. If I can generate enough income to purchase the property, if the support from the community is here, then we will survive," he says.

Skyrocketing land values are the biggest reason drive-ins have fallen along the way, according to Jim Kozak, director of communications for the National Association of Theatre Owners. Most drive-ins were built right after World War II fairly far out of the city but along well-traveled highways where land was still cheap," Mr. Kozak says. "As the cities expanded in the '70s and '80s, the land became very valuable."

Nationwide, only 899 drive-in screens remain in operation. In 1958, at their peak, there were 4,063, according to the North Hollywood, Calif.-based theater owners association. The Edmondson Drive-In Theater in Westview was Maryland's most recent casualty, closing in November. It had opened in 1954. The property has been targeted for retail use.

Movies are not enough to preserve drive-ins today. Mr. Wagner says historic car cruises, which started in 1985, have helped to rejuvenate the Bel Air drive-in. Antique cars are welcome to park ZTC free on the grounds each Saturday night. (They must pay if they go into the drive-in). This has generated lots of free publicity for the drive-in. It has also been terrific for the Big M carryout and restaurant out front, Mr. Wagner says.

The historic cars and their owners, typically 30 to 60 years old, have also helped to cement the drive-in's image as wholesome family entertainment, he says.

Mr. Wagner says he began working at the 12-acre site in 1968 when he was 14 years old. His dad, Oscar, who became night manager that year, kept an eye on his son by making him responsible for picking up trash and keeping the grounds clean.

The business is still family-run. Mr. Wagner, who has never married, lives behind the restaurant with his mother, Sophie, in one trailer. His brother and sister-in-law, Jimmy and Kathy, who also work for the business, live nearby with their two children in another trailer.

Mr. Wagner began leasing the property in 1979 from the original owner and bought it, using his mother's home as security, in 1989.

Car-hop service

The property has changed little over the years, he says. The restaurant, which opened in 1962, still has car-hop service, allowing patrons to stay in their cars, give their orders over a speaker and have the food brought to their car door. The menu hasn't changed much, either, says Mr. Wagner. The fried chicken, for example, is still cooked in a pressure cooker -- a drive-in tradition.

Other traditions have also remained intact. Teen-agers still try to sneak in, using the time-honored hide-in-the-trunk method, he says.

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