Come September, it will be the last picture show at the Bengies Drive-In

UP FRONT

May 28, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Ironic, isn't it? At the same time the U.S. Postal Service is preparing to honor the drive-in as an icon of the 20th century, Baltimore may be saying goodbye to one of its last outdoor theaters.

The Bengies Drive-In, an Eastern Avenue mainstay since 1956, is up for sale.

"My paramount mission is to try to get someone with the wherewithal to be interested in this Bengies Drive-In Theater - not just the property, but the Bengies Drive-In," says D. Edward Vogel, who's been operating the theater since 1988.

Vogel, who goes by D., owns the theater buildings and rents the property from his stepfather, Jack Vogel. But after 10 years, he's had enough of the 16-hour days required to keep it going. Especially since, even with those long days, Vogel says, he barely turns a profit - a fact of life that weighs against the possibility of the Bengies remaining open once the property is sold.

So, come September, Vogel will show his last film on the Bengies' giant screen. After that, the property will be sold.

"At this point, I wouldn't even give it a 50-50 chance of surviving," Vogel says.

Should the Bengies close, Churchville's Bel Air Drive-In, on Route 22, will stand as the area's last outdoor theater. And while the Bel Air is a fun place to watch a film, it has nowhere near the vintage ambience of the Bengies.

His massive screen (largest in the state, Vogel brags) is original. So is the concession stand, complete with menu boards that look like they haven't been touched in 30 years (except for the prices, although they're still lower than those at the multiplex theaters). Although the sound system is now broadcast through your car radio, working, old-style speakers that attach to your car window are still available for purists.

Vogel doesn't relish his potential role as the man who closed the Bengies. For one thing, his family built the theater. His stepfather, Jack, designed it; his uncle, Hank, managed it for 22 years, until his death in 1978.

"It's not just getting rid of the Bengies Drive-In," says Vogel. "It's getting rid of Hank Vogel, it's geting rid of Jack Vogel's architectural work. There are a great number of people in Baltimore and around the area who hold this place very dear to their hearts."

So, Vogel is giving Bengies fans a summer to say goodbye.

"Every drive-in in Baltimore disappeared, and nobody knew about it," Vogel says. "The Edmondson was the most courteous; they told everyone one week before. I would like for people to come out and enjoy it in their own quiet way, in their own good time. I don't want a feeding frenzy come September."

People should think about spending at least one night at the Bengies before it closes. For in many ways the Bengies is the last of its breed. Over the past 20 years, the Baltimore area has lost the Timonium, the Edmondson, the North Point, the Super 170 and the Governor Ritchie drive-ins, among others.

And the trade-off when a drive-in closes is hardly ever worth it. Just consider what has replaced some of Baltimore's outdoor theaters: a hotel on the site of the Timonium, a shopping center on the site of the Governor Ritchie in Glen Burnie, an overgrown hardware store at the site of the Edmondson in Catonsville.

Not that drive-ins have been universally unappreciated. A recent survey by the Postal Service showed the public viewed drive-in theaters as the most visible icon of the 1950s. And in the South, where good weather allows drive-ins to remain open all year, they're still thriving.

Unfortunately, in these parts, events have conspired to make life difficult for drive-ins. Cold weather keeps them closed several months every year. With only one screen, it's hard to compete with the multi-screen megaplexes popping up all over. And rising property values have made the land on which the theaters sit more profitable for other uses.

But, as any number of diners, tail-finned Chevys and James Dean devotees can attest, nostalgia for the '50s is far from dead.

"You've got a lot of '50s wannabes out there," Vogel says, "but here, you start with the real article, and that's a whole different story."

A night at the Bengies hasn't changed all that much since it opened on June 6, 1956. Although the original marquee (complete with one of Baltimore County's most famous typos: there shouldn't be an apostrophe in "Bengie's") was replaced in 1973, its flag-topped successor looks gloriously retro. The original box office burned down a few years back, but it was replaced using the original plans.

Even the road you take to get to your parking space looks original; no blacktop of recent vintage could have that many potholes.

"I used to fix the potholes religiously," Vogel says with a smile, "but all that did was give people a license to speed. This makes them drive slow."

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