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The Drive-In; A Relic Of The Past For The Pandemic Present

 The big screen at Bengies in Middle River
Allison Mollenkamp
The big screen at Bengies in Middle River

With the return of warm weather and increasing access to vaccines, Marylanders are looking for activities outside the house. An old favorite is gearing up for the spring and summer.

It’s Bengies Drive-In, situated just off the banks of Frog Mortar Creek in Middle River. A visit here feels like a visit to the past.

Of course, there are signs of our present reality; masked faces and a half-capacity crowd.

In a pandemic world short on options for getting out of the house, Bengies Drive-In stayed open all winter to give Marylanders a chance to get back to the silver screen.

General manager Ken Adam said the theater had to work with the health department to open at all last year.

“It was a little bit of a battle to get open,” he said. “You know, at the beginning we were kind of lumped in with an indoor theatre. So, we weren’t allowed to open as early as we had hoped to open.”

Eventually, the theater came up with a plan to open safely. Customers are asked to wear masks when they’re outside their vehicles, and to stay six feet apart when waiting in line.

The pandemic didn’t keep fans away, and the theatre often sold out its half capacity last summer. Adam doesn’t anticipate a change to the mask rules any time soon, but hopes they’ll be able to increase their capacity in the coming months. They may also be able to move away from their schedule of classic films.

“We have a lot of, you know, good movies coming up,” Adam said. “We actually have some first run movies…some bigger name movies that are being released that we hope to be able to play in the near future.”

Diane Hain, of Pikesville, discovered drive in movie theaters when she was a kid and discovered Bengies years ago when she was looking for things to do with her own children.

“I got here, turned the corner so that I was facing that screen for the first time,” Hain said. “And that was the day I finally believed in love at first sight.”

Her friend Lisa Ianuzzi, of Catonsville said the drive-in feels like a safe place to go during the pandemic.

“We don’t want to go to an indoor movie theatre,” Ianuzzi said. “I didn’t go to restaurants. Basically, this was the place I went to for any type of entertainment. Because it was safe here.”

Hain even came here in the cold of last winter when the theater rented heaters you could plug into the poles where the speakers hang. She said it’s just part of the routine.

“Anyway I’m used to dealing with the heaters,” Hain said. “And you know, I keep blankets in the car all the time anyway.”

While much has changed at Bengies, some things have remained the same.

More than thirty years after Hain fell in love with the drive-in while looking for a family friendly activity, young families are still loading up the lawn chairs for a night out.

Tiffany Cervantes said it works well for her family.

“Having a small child who wants to do and touch everything, right, we have to think about what can we do that is safe but interactive, but, you know, not in front of like, a tv and being outdoors,” Cervantes said. “So, this is like a way to get some family time, be outdoors, fresh air, but still be safe.”

Cervantes’ four-year-old daughter, Talia, has a simpler reason to love the drive-in.

“She likes eating popcorn, as you can see,” Cervantes said. “She’s eating the whole thing.”

As the line at the snack bar dwindles and the last rays of the sunset go dark, it’s finally time for the movie to start.

Bengies Drive-In may look like a window to the past, but they’ve found a way through the pandemic and toward a future with new movies and plenty of popcorn.

Allison Mollenkamp