The Hungover Gourmet


Drive-In Daze

Sit in your car! Talk or smoke! See & Hear the Movies!
Ad for the Camden, NJ Drive-In circa 1933

It 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 of EXPLOITATION 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.

The 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 clarity!

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 surrounding community.

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."

EPILOGUE: Unfortunately, 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.

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