Going to the Bel Air Drive-in becomes a trip back in time

Nostalgia: A longtime Harford County resident visits a local landmark where things haven't changed much.

October 05, 2003|By Todd Holden | Todd Holden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The last time I had been to a drive-in movie was with my children. They ate a lot, got in and out of the car a lot, and I fell asleep at the wheel. I can't remember the film, but it must have been a good one to keep us all in the car at the same time for two hours.

I went back to the Bel Air Drive-in to see the film version of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. The book was riveting, and I figured that if you want to see 60-foot waves, you ought to see them on a 50-foot screen.

The Bel Air is a Harford County landmark. In operation for more than 50 years, it is one of the last open-air drive-ins.

The little restaurant, the Big M, is also a favorite of folks who like home-cooked breakfasts, with a clientele made up of people mostly like me: homegrown Harford County.

The Wagner family has worked the drive-in since I can remember, and most members live in mobile homes on the property.

One home is behind the projection bunker, and another sits on the lawn near the ticket window.

My mom and dad took my brother and me to the Bel Air to see Clark Gable and Ava Gardner in Mogambo long ago.

As a teen-ager, the drive-in was the place to take a date or a gang of guys hiding in the trunk and on the floor. ("So, how many in the car, Mister?" "Just me.")

In the cubbyhole window was Mom Wagner, the Bel Air matriarch, with elbows on the ledge, smiling as she raked in the fives and tens.

I heard she'd retired a while back - big party and all - then a week later, came back to work the ticket window:

"That'll be seven bucks. Turn your radio dial to 88.7 FM, and enjoy the show."

The drive-in is at 3035 Churchville Road, in the heart of downtown Churchville, and holds more than 400 cars. Adults pay $7 each, children 4 to 11 pay $3 and infants are free.

I wonder where the owners of the drive-in watch the films.

Do they open the curtains to their home and sit in the living room? Their home is between the restaurant and the grassy lot, where tonight the place is packed with every sort of car.

Do they get into their car, turn left and pick a mound to pull up on? And I wonder how many times Jimmy and Robert Wagner and Mom have seen Thunder Road, that Robert Mitchum classic.

Sitting in the car, a wave of nostalgia overtakes me as the field of cars seems dimmer, waiting for darkness to slip in. Thinking of the good times growing up in Harford County, visiting the places that have survived and carry on in spite of hard times, bad times, changing times and forgotten places long gone to the bulldozers.

The Big M is a survivor - and offers the best breakfast in the area.

The kind of place where a fellow needing a refill fills all the cups at the counter with fresh coffee. When I visit, it's my job and I do it.

Windows up, cool evening, radio on I'm hoping I won't be let down by the film or the drive-in. And looking up at that big screen I felt this night was meant to be - the return to the drive-in.

Going this time was a trip back in time to another place, still the same for the most part.

Like a living museum, the drive-in theater is alive and well in downtown Churchville.

For the sake of honoring the good times, long live the drive-in and the Wagners, who stuck it out to keep the place alive and abreast of the times in a fast-changing landscape.

The livestock auction that used to be next door is gone and houses an archery range.

The drive-in just keeps on keeping on, only now on hot summer nights patrons can't smell the barnyard.

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