The Bengies Drive-In has made it to 50. Who would have thought it?
Certainly not D. Vogel, who has been running the venerable Baltimore County institution since 1988.
"I never dreamed, in a million years, that I'd be the survivor," says Vogel, whose indefatigable enthusiasm for the open-air theater his family built and opened back on June 6, 1956, has kept it operating when all the Baltimore area's other drive-ins have shut down. The Edmondson. The Timonium. The Carlin, North Point, Governor Ritchie and Super 170. And, last year, the Bel Air. This area had plenty of drive-ins back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the best way to keep cool on a hot summer evening was to load the family in a car and head out to watch a movie under the open sky.
They're all gone now. Air conditioning made them less necessary, rising property values made them less practical. But the Bengies, at 2417 Eastern Blvd., soldiers on.
"This is what a drive-in theater, a nice one, looks like," says Vogel, who's admittedly a little biased, but speaks the truth. "It is right out of the 1950s, it still has its original design. The Bengies is, in fact, the genuine article."
It certainly is. According to Vogel, it sports the largest movie screen on the East Coast, and it would be tough to argue with him. At 52-by-120-feet, it's huge, and seeing a movie that big is an experience not to be missed. For years, I've been asking Vogel to show Ben-Hur at the Bengies, in the belief that the spectacular chariot race in that movie would look positively mythic on such a huge screen. This summer, Vogel says, although nothing's definite, I just might get my wish.
Regardless, the Bengies - named for the neighborhood, not, as some suspect, a family - stands as a civic treasure. Baltimore is lucky to have the Senator as a holdover from the days of the great movie palaces, and the Charles' five screens give the city a cinematic showplace that's the envy of many larger movie markets. But the Bengies offers a singular experience that takes a back seat to none.
"You've got a blanket of stars above you, you've got the stars on the screen," says Vogel, waxing a bit poetic. "You've got much more impact on your senses than you do in an indoor theater."
Movie-going at the Bengies, which operates on weekends from roughly April through October, hasn't changed much over the years. It still sports the area's greatest marquee, a mega-bright announcement of the cinematic goodies available on the other side of the gates (this weekend, Pixar's new animated film, Cars, is showing). The refreshment stand, which demands that you actually get out of your car and walk to the back of the 750-car parking area, still offers burgers, fries, hot dogs and assorted other goodies.
And Vogel insists on maintaining a family atmosphere, determined not to revisit the days when the local drive-in was known more for teenage canoodling than for the movies being shown. Funny business is not welcome at the Bengies.
Nor is outside food, an occasional sore point for visitors who want to take a picnic supper, or even a couple sodas, to enjoy during the movie. Like any theater owner, Vogel makes most of his money from selling concessions, and you wouldn't think about taking dinner into the Senator, would you? And if you insist on taking your own food, you can, provided you fork over a $7 fee. Vogel estimates some 20 percent of a typical night's audience does.
These are good days at the Bengies. After years of fearing that each season would be its last, Vogel is finally feeling secure about the future. In September 2004, he bought the property from his father, Jack Vogel, just a month before the older man died. For years, Jack Vogel, who designed the theater - it was built by Vogel Building, which was headed by Jack's brother, Hank) - had been expecting to sell the place, but no deal was ever finalized. Now D. Vogel owns both the theater and the property, and he's looking forward to hanging around.
"This is my house," he says. "I protect it, I love it. I'm confident, as long as I'm around, it's going to be here."