Back To The Future At Bel Air Drive-In

COMMENT

June 06, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The first movie that I can ever recall seeing as a child was at a drive-in. It was an adventure barely understood -- that outing I mean. I was warmly clad in a winter sleeper on a muggy spring night, and the frenetic waves of horses and cowboys across the huge screen were more confusing than exciting. Sleep in the back seat must have come sooner than later, to the relief of my harassed parents.

The last time I attended a drive-in movie was also a long time ago, when action in the autos was more important than that on the screen. The name and plot of that cinematic epic also eludes me -- forgettable films being the hallmark of that era -- but I know I was not dressed in a flannel sleeper.

Last weekend, with two small children in the back seat of the family wagon, I finally returned to the drive-in, more for convenience than for any nostalgia trip. And guess what? The drive-in, at least the Bel Air Drive-In in Churchville, had grown up along with me. Many of the cars had young children in them, and they were dressed for bedtime.

Since Hollywood turns out more age-restricted movies than ever, more's the wonder that the Bel Air was screening two family films that are favorites of the small-fry, Disney's "Aladdin" and "Homeward Bound," a story of lost housepets finding their way ** home after a series of comic and perilous adventures.

The only worry about such a twin-bill (confirmed, as it turned out) was that the youngsters would not doze off and leave some quiet respite for their parents. Other cars had similar problems, we could hear.

The Big M drive-in restaurant next to the al fresco cinema was doing a bustling business, carhops delivering trays of pressure-cooked chicken and heaping roast beef sandwiches that customers had ordered the old-fashioned way, by pushing the button on the car-side speakers. Inside, the short counter was crammed with those ordering takeout food, and buying commemorative T-shirts to mark the occasion.

Parked in front was a dazzling assembly of shiny collector cars from the 1950s and 1960s, the peak of the drive-in craze. It's a weekly ritual of auto buffs in this area, encouraged by the owner of the drive-in theater and eatery, Robert F. Wagner, who has operated the establishment since 1979, after working for his father there a decade earlier.

On any summer weekend, you can see dozens of classic cars cruising around the theater and restaurant, for the delight of onlookers (and sometimes to the dismay of motorists along Route 22.) They were out in force on Memorial Day weekend to mark the theater's 41st season.

The vintage auto trip down memory lane began at the drive-in in1985, to lure the middle-age crowd to the action and to emphasize the family nature of the entertainment. (Long gone are the days of the drive-in as the forbidden passion pit, or the shameful venue of X-rated skinflicks.) Now, these carefully preserved automotive relics are an integral part of the time-travel scene at the Big M and the Bel Air Drive-In, the state's oldest

operating drive-in and one of only 870 left in the entire United States.

Families are a big part of the drive-in trade today, Mr. Wagner confirmed. "We see people from several generations come back year after year, some people are coming out of nostalgia, and there's always a lot of families," he said.

Children under 12 are admitted free. A drive-in double-feature costs $5, less than the price of a film playing in the mini-shoeboxes that now pass for cinemas. It's a night out with prices and children under control (in theory) inside your own vehicle.

Special promotions and prices help to keep the open air theater solvent. There was an all-night movie marathon on Sunday, for example. A year ago, the Bel Air Drive-In celebrated with 60-cent admissions for a pair of 1950s movies.

But it is the restaurant and the highly popular car shows that pay most of the bills, Mr. Wagner said. (Living on the 12-acre property and employing family members also helps to control costs, he added.)

The 300 auto spaces at the theater are seldom entirely filled, attendance depending more on the movies playing than on a doggedly loyal clientele or the weather.

With the convenience of home video rental and the mall attractions next to indoor moviehouses, the drive-in is competing for a narrow niche audience. Rising commercial real estate values persuade more and more operators to throw in the towel.

For many operators like Mr. Wagner, part of the motivation to keep the drive-in alive is sentimental, a hold on the past and on an institution that has symbolized their youth.

But it's also an economic enterprise. And the Bel Air's owner sees the cycle turning again, as more young people are showing up for the movies -- some even sneak in a buddy or two in the trunk without a ticket, in time-honored tradition of their parents and grandparents.

In Churchville on a spring weekend, the future still looks a lot like the past to Mr. Wagner and to a lot of his graying customers like me.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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