A moving drama behind big screen

Culture: Residents' applications for state grants might not be enough to save one of the state's last drive-in movie theaters.

January 25, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Bengies Drive-In Theatre is a couple hundred years younger than most of Baltimore County's historical sites, but at least two area residents think it's a landmark worth saving.

Marshella Merritt of Rosedale and Fran Marinaro of Ten Hills nominated the 44-year-old Middle River theater for a grant designed to save Maryland treasures as part of the state's Year 2000 celebrations.

To their surprise, Bengies was selected as one of six Baltimore County sites allowed to compete for the grants, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.

In surviving the first round, Bengies beat out such well-known Baltimore County historical landmarks as Fort Garrison and the Thomas Viaduct.

"I was surprised Bengies made the list at all," Marinaro said.

"It does seem strange," said Merritt. Unless something is done, she added, Bengies will soon become nothing more than a fond memory.

It appears, however, that the preservation program won't be enough to save Bengies, which sits on 15 acres off Eastern Boulevard worth considerably more than the grants being offered by the state. The owners have put the theater up for sale, saying they aren't interested in a share of the $450,000 pot state agencies and private contributors have raised.

More than 400 properties statewide were nominated for the program; 182 were chosen by Maryland historians to vie for the grants, which can be used for property acquisition, rehabilitation, restoration or conservation work, or special services -- such as studies or surveys -- related to these activities.

In Baltimore County, other qualifiers include Hampton Mansion in Towson and its archives [two separate entries], Mount De Sales Academy in Catonsville, Todd's Inheritance at Fort Howard, and the I. Henry Phillips collection of photographs detailing the life of African-Americans in the Baltimore area.

Under threat

The treasures were chosen because of the threat they faced from development or deterioration, said Elizabeth Hughes of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Some of those submitting applications were historians, but many others were lay persons like Merritt and Marinaro. Though they had never met, both are fans who have been going to Bengies since they were children.

"One day, there may be no more drive-in theaters left," Merritt said.

2 drive-ins in state

Bengies and the Bel Air Drive-in in Churchville are the two remaining drive-ins in Maryland, reflecting a national trend that has seen the number of such theaters drop from more than 4,000 in 1958 to about 520 today, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Ohio real estate developer Jack Vogel has been trying for several years to sell the property. A prospective buyer had been negotiating for the site, but Vogel's son Fred said there is no contract on the property.

Another son, D. Edward Vogel, operates the theater. Because of the uncertainty surrounding its future, he said he would not accept the grant. Edward Vogel said he is not sure Bengies will open this year.

Merritt and Marinaro said they hope that by nominating Bengies, they will draw attention to its pending demise and perhaps attract the interest of a buyer willing to keep the drive-in alive.

`A relic'

"It's definitely a relic," said Marinaro, who recalls watching movies from the back seat of his parents' car.

Last year, he took his wife and daughter to Bengies to see their first drive-in movie. They enjoyed the show, he said, even though they had to fend off mosquitoes.

"Bengies is sort of fun," he said. "It's the kind of place you go and you watch the movie, but you also get entertainment watching the other people."

Marinaro and Merritt said they intend to go forward with the grant application and hope to win the support of the Vogels to preserve the drive-in.

"It's a fond memory many of us have as a child, and I want to be able to share that with my own children and grandchildren," Merrit said.

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