Showing the big picture of a flickering tradition

Drive-in: The popularity of the Bel Air theater in Churchville is a novelty in an era of megaplexes.

October 05, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

It looks like an updated scene from the movie American Graffiti. Instead of Studebakers, SUVs are crowded onto a field. The movie soundtrack is heard on simultaneous AM and FM broadcasts, rather than speakers hanging from car windows. And the stars of the double feature are Will Smith and Jackie Chan, not Elvis Presley and John Wayne.

But much about the Bel Air Drive-In in Churchville has remained the same since it opened 51 years ago. It's a place where, on a given summer evening, people in more than 400 vehicles can watch a movie on a huge outdoor screen.

What once was a popular form of entertainment is now a novelty, however. In 1958, Maryland had 47 drive-ins. Now there are three, the Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore, the Bel Air and the Mason-Dixon Drive-In Theatre in Washington County.

"When people don't patronize the Bel Air, they don't patronize American history," said Karen Zellman, one of three partners who own and operate the outdoor theater and its Big M Restaurant.

It hasn't been easy keeping the businesses going in recent years. The partners - Zellman, her husband, Lee, and friend Robert Wagner - have battled health problems and financial difficulties.

But they hope to keep alive the monument to 1950s America that has been a part of their lives for so long.

"There's something about Big M and the Bel Air that gets in your blood," Karen Zellman said recently. Tears welling up in her eyes, she added, "As long as I have a breath in my body, I will not close the Bel Air or the Big M."

Jessica Ely, 15, of Churchville started working at the Bel Air this summer and says there's something special about a family-run drive-in. She watched movies at the Bel Air when she was younger and knew Zellman before she started working for her.

"It's something different because you see people from out of the area," Ely said.

Many drive-ins have fallen on hard times since multiplexes started to dominate the movie landscape. The Bel Air is no exception. It has felt the effects of theaters such as the 14-screen Regal Cinema a few miles away in Abingdon, which opened in 1997 with stadium seating and a sophisticated sound system.

"Big theaters are killing the Bel Air," said Wagner, who has worked there since 1969, when he was 14. His family has managed the drive-in since John Manuel, who owned several outdoor theaters, opened it in 1952 on 10 acres on the south side of Route 22.

Reminders of the early years abound. The 50-foot-tall screen is made of plywood. The original marquee is still standing, as are the poles that once held the car speakers. These days, they are used to mark parking spaces. Customers often bring lawn chairs that they position in the grass between the screen and the parking area.

The Bel Air used to show movies seven days a week, year-round. But it's too expensive to keep the theater open during the winter, Wagner said. So the owners have adopted a shorter season, operating seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are also showings on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in April through October, weather permitting.

"As long as we have good weather, we do fairly well," Wagner said.

The Big M Restaurant, featuring a takeout window, seating for about 20, and car-hop service, stands between the large screen and Route 22. The restaurant, which opened in 1962, remains open throughout the year.

The two businesses have a symbiotic relationship, said Zellman, so the restaurant suffers in the winter.

The Zellmans and Wagner, 48, say they live mostly off the income generated by Big M. But that has become harder since Wagner suffered a stroke in 1999 that left him unable to work. Karen Zellman has taken over management of the business.

Zellman started working at Big M by chance. Twelve years ago, her brother-in-law - who worked for the Wagner family - asked her daughter to help out at the restaurant. The daughter couldn't do it, so Zellman went instead.

"I had so much of a blast, I stayed," she said.

The businesses are family operations. Zellman's mother, children and grandchildren help out when they can. Wagner's brother Jimmy runs the Big M, and other family members frequently work the ticket booth or help park cars.

The second-run movie industry began to dry up with the advent of VCRs, and many drive-in movie owners sold their land to developers, Wagner said. Wagner, who bought the drive-in property in 1979, has received offers for his land but refused to sell until recently.

Facing financial problems, he sold the land this year to Ferrell Family LLC, which owns property next to the drive-in.

Kevin Ferrell of Ferrell Family LLC said he would like to keep the Bel Air and Big M on the land for the time being. Wagner and Zellman were comforted when nearly 30,000 tickets were sold this summer. Both point to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as one reason that audiences seem to be growing as people seek to recapture the atmosphere of 1950s America.

They hope to foster a family atmosphere with their nostalgic setting and a mix of movies rated G and PG-13.

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