your car! Talk or smoke! See & Hear
Ad for the Camden, NJ Drive-In circa
seems fitting that like the drive-in
movie theater I was born in Camden,
New Jersey. By the time I came along,
though, my folks already had four kids
so drive-in outings were nonexistent.
My earliest memories of outdoor cinema
date to the 1970s when my brothers and
I would crane our necks to catch a glimpse
of on-screen skin during the Super-130's
notorious "blue" period.
Drive-ins and I would become
better acquainted during the1980s. Family
entertainment was out and the screens
in my area showed grisly triple bills
featuring grindhouse classics, C-grade
slasher flicks, and Italian gut-munchers.
Weekend nights from spring to fall were
spent lounging outdoors, eating Chinese
food and sipping cheap beer while zombies
ripped flesh and demented gardeners chased
horny teens through the woods. (These
experiences led directly to the creation
RETROSPECT, my long-running drive-in
movie zine/web site.)
The end snuck up on us like
a masked killer in a splatter flick. Mainstream
Hollywood outings replaced low-budget
trash, leading to incongruous double-features
like DISORDERLIES starring The Fat Boys
and FULL METAL JACKET, Stanley Kubrick's
harrowing tale of Vietnam. The drive-ins
around me bit the dust one by one, turning
into flea markets, bus terminals, and
parcels of land overgrown with weeds and
memories. The last one shut its doors
in the late 1990s, and it was time to
look elsewhere for my drive-in fix.
Thanks to a slightly retro-vibe
that hangs over the whole area, I wasn't
surprised that my new home in the Baltimore
area featured not one, but two drive-in
theaters that had operated for decades.
And they couldn't be less alike.
My first taste of Baltimore
Drive-In Culture came at The
Bengies, an area fixture for nearly
50 years [3417 Eastern Blvd., Baltimore;
410-687-5627]. While the drive-ins I frequented
during the 80s had a loose code of conduct,
the only rules that were enforced with
any frequency included no conspicuous
beer guzzling and no horn honking. Unfortunately,
nothing had prepared me for the rules
and regulations that met us at the gates
of The Bengies.
Think I'm joking? The theatre's
web site lists a dizzying array of "strictly
enforced house rules" including:
"Shoes must be worn at all times
by all people. Do not carry shoeless children.,"
"Outside food and beverages are restricted
from the premises" (though you can
buy a permit for a whopping $7) and "Ape
shall not kill ape." Think you'll
claim ignorance because you didn't see
them on the web site? Hah! Photocopies
are handed out as you await the pre-entrance
"outside food inspection."
As we queued up thankfully
missing the first twenty minutes of the
wretched BRUCE ALMIGHTY my mind
raced... Is gum an outside food? What
about mints? There's not going to be a
cavity search, is there?!
Luckily, we passed inspection
and nervously followed the parking attendants
(!) to a spot at the back of the lot.
Apparently, all of Baltimore had decided
to get out under the stars and catch a
triple bill that also featured 2 FAST
2 FURIOUS and the dismal romantic comedy
HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS.
atmosphere at The Bengies can only be
described as politeness mixed with fear.
I rigidly sat in my chair, wondering if
the noise police would smash my box to
pieces during the homo-erotically-charged
2 FAST. To lighten the mood, a master
of ceremonies excitedly chats up the drive-in's
"charm," introduces the between-flick
shorts, and extols the virtues of seeing
the following week's IMAX print of THE
HULK on the East Coast's "largest
screen." Yes, that way you can see
every incredibly sucky frame with extra
Less a drive-in than like
a theme park drive-in "experience,"
The Bengies may be fighting for survival.
A June 2004 zoning board hearing will
determine if the local zoning will be
changed from residential to commercial,
a move that could pave the way for establishments
that would likely choke the roads of the
That's okay, because if
The Bengies closes there's always Bel-Air
[3035 Churchville Rd., Churchville, MD],
a theater under the stars that runs much
closer to my idea of drive-in fun.
Located between the middle
of nowhere and upper middle of nowhere,
Bel-Air sits in a clearing that appears
like it hasn't been, um, cleared in ages.
As we pulled in on a Saturday night for
a double bill of VAN HELSING and THE PUNISHER,
the skies darkened, a tornado warning
was issued for areas to the south, and
the lot of the adjacent drive-in restaurant
was filled with classic cars for a "cruise."
Not to mention a crowd of people sporting
injuries that had the words "bar
brawl" written all over them.
If the Bengies has the feel of a futuristic
society run by Big Brother, Bel-Air is
like the lawless Wild West. As far as
we could tell, the only rule seemed to
be "No Grills," though I'm guessing
the drive-in fuzz would look the other
way for some charred animal flesh. Children
and adults openly ran without shoes while
we dug into bags of outside food and sipped
from giant styrofoam cups of shaved ice
purchased on the way.
Pretty soon the wind began
to blow as hard as VAN HELSING, though
the woodsy setting and flashes of lightning
overhead added some much-needed ambience
to the flick. A torrential rainstorm two-thirds
of the way through the bloated period
horror "epic" drove us into
the confines of our car where we fiddled
with the defogger and tried not to succumb
to carbon monoxide poisoning (another
"house rule" at The Bengies).
Soggy from the rain and
saddened by the atrocious flick, we decided
to call it a night before we got to sample
the greasy fries and delicious egg rolls
that surely awaited us at the snack bar.
I suppose we'll just save
them for another visit. For as the great
Joe Bob Briggs often said, "The drive-in
will never die."
some drive-ins do die. An article in the
April 15, 2005 Baltimore Sun confirmed
that the Bel-Air Drive-In will not be
opening for the 2005 season. According
to the article, rent and operating costs
have gotten too expensive.