No summer is complete for me without a trip or two to The Bengies, an honest-to-God drive-in theater just northeast of Baltimore. Over the weekend, I made my first pilgrimage of the year.
It probably surprises a lot of people to learn that there was a drive-in still in existence around here, much less an enormous drive-in with the biggest movie screen on the East Coast. But The Bengies survives despite all sorts of challenges from urban development and changing tastes.
The Bengies is a quirky-bordering-on-bizarre place. When you enter, you are handed a multi-page brochure filled with all sorts of rules…and those rules are enforced with ruthless efficiency. One, for example, is that you cannot have ANY kind of front lights running on your car when you enter or leave the theater — never mind if you have automatic, non-defeatable daytime running lights. As a result, I have to remove my floor mats, pop my hood, drape my floor mats so they hang over my lights and drop the hood again before I enter the Bengies.
My wife and I also generally bring a picnic when we go there, but the place understandably wants us to buy their food (that’s how movie theaters make their money). However, in a smart move, they sell a special permit to allow people to bring in their own food, and in reality, we usually end up at the snack bar anyway to buy popcorn or late-night coffee.
It’s a marathon to go to the Bengies. We usually arrive right after the theater opens because the line to get into the place can be enormous if you wait too long on a Saturday to arrive. We essentially set up camp — we bring folding tables, chairs and a boom box (the Bengies, like most still-in-existence drive-ins, uses FM radio to broadcast the sound for the theater), break out our picnic, and enjoy ourselves while we wait for the movies to begin. Typically, we’ll stick around for two of the three featured films — but that still means we get home really, really late. On Saturday, we left the house at 5:30 p.m. and got back home at 2:30 a.m.
On this weekend, we saw Shrek 4 and Robin Hood — two movies well-suited for a drive-in. The crowd was decent but not enormous — both movies were held over from last weekend, which usually leads to a smaller crowd. Still, we enjoyed ourselves, as we always do.
The long rules sheet and the ruthless enforcement actually makes the Bengies a very family-friendly place. It doesn’t have any of the sleaziness that was typical of drive-ins back when they were dying off in the 1970s. I’ve written about the place in the past, but I highly recommend it as a great place to experience something that was common when I grew up but has faded over time — a night at the drive-in.