D Vogel—just the letter D, no e’s or ea’s—positions himself ten feet in front of The Bengie’s Drive-in concession stand at exactly the building’s mid-point. He gazes across an open field of empty parking spaces at the largest drive-in screen left standing, a behemoth constructed before shopping centers encroached on its territory and low flying helicopters raided its sound space. No equation could calculate the number of times this man and this screen have faced each other like this or the number of times they’ve performed this trick.
D balances his coffee on the “No Smoking” sign and claps.
The sound waves travel from his hands, over the field where seven decades of Baltimore’s families and friends and couples have gathered and lands precisely in the center of the screen’s concave curvature.
The screen returns, “Clap.”
D maintains theory, that every drive-in is a reflection of its owner; they share a personality. I’ve witnessed his theory at work, the way the Family Drive-in feels as laid back and welcoming as owner Jim Kopp and the Ocala Drive-in feels as Louisiana Southern as owner John Watzke sounds. It makes sense. The proprietor of a drive-in is rarely a CEO in a faraway office, they’re usually bunning hamburgers in the concession stand or making change in the ticket booth. They are a part of the theater’s day-to-day and the force behind its survival, but few owners become a main character at their drive-in the way D Vogel has at The Bengie’s.
As I walk between rows of vehicles before the show, asking folks why they came to the drive-in, I realize that the regulars all know D. If not personally, they know of him.
I meet Bill Coyne and his wife Laura sitting in lawn chairs wrapped in Bengie’s throw blankets. Bill places his Bengie’s tin popcorn canister on the ground and wipes the salt and butter from his hands to shake mine. “He has all the Bengie’s gear,” Laura tells me.
“I’ve been coming here since 1961,” Bill explains. “I remember being lost in the rows looking for my parent’s car at six.”
Besides the fan gear, Bill is clearly passionate about the theater and what it represents to him, a simpler time, “Leave it to Beaver” America. The Bengie’s is the last drive-in in Maryland, but a few others exist within day-trip range for true drive-in fans, so I ask if he and Laura ever try other theaters and Laura responds, “we’ve been to other drive-ins, years ago.” She checks with Bill to see if he remembers this one time, that drive-in that used to be next to that place? He might, but the Coyne’s aren’t “drive-in” fans, they’re fans of The Bengie’s and specifically, its owner.
“The others don’t have D,” Bill says. “He epitomizes The Bengie’s.”
Bill apricates the way D insists on starting each night with the Star Spangles Banner—our conversation is temporarily interrupted by the anthem, played over images of the American flag—the Coyne’s, and most everyone else in the theater, rise from their lawn chairs in respect. After, Bill tells me that D welcomes the local Army Reserve unit to present the flag at the theater several times in the summer season and earned an award in recognition for his support of the military.
Bill is a retired member of the Army Reserves himself. When he was stationed in overseas shortly after September 11th, 2001, the place he day-dreamed about was the drive-in. “I wanted to go to Bengie’s and feel safe. When we did come home, D was great to us. He always thanked us for our service and gave showings just for military people.” I leave Bill and Laura to their movie, although I get the feeling that they came for the experience than live-action Aladdin.
Near the concession stand, I spot Marty, sporting a brown t-shirt with the Bengie’s marque on the front. He knows me before I have the chance to ask about his shirt. “You the writer?”
I don’t have to ask Marty many questions, he contains enough stories of D and the drive-in to last the night.
Back in the days of 35mm film, Marty worked as a projectionist. On one of his early jobs, he ran into a string of bad luck, the film kept breaking and tearing on him. The company he worked for assumed it was the young projectionist’s fault and hired an expert to watch him operate, hoping to catch his mistake. D Vogel appeared as the expert. D’s opinion back the company— “It’s not Marty , it’s your crappy equipment” The two have been friends ever since.
Mark worked at The Bengie’s as a second projectionist, advertising man, part-time manager—basically D’s right-hand man. Now, his health is making it more difficult for him to come out but he lets D know when he can make it and never stops promoting the theater. “I carry around a few pamphlets and if I see a couple with young kids, I tell them ‘why don’t you come to the drive-in? I love it. I never could have had the career I had without Bengie’s and D.”
Over the night, I hear anecdotes like Bill and Marty’s again and again. People who feel devoted to the drive-in because they’re devoted to D Vogel, or they’re devoted to D because they’re devoted to the drive-in. The difference between the man and the theater is hard to separate.
Inside the projection booth, I meet D short before intermission. The room hums with the sound of the digital projector and the dueling air-conditioners installed the keep the machine cool. D loads a reel of real 35mm film into the old analog projector. He insists on running as much of the intermission show on 35 as possible even though few fans will notice the difference or value the extra effort.
“Isn’t that great?” D says during the classic drive-in intermission reel. He doesn’t really ask it as a question, but I agree, it’s pretty great.
The preview for next week’s movie runs just after the intermission message encouraging guests to visit the concession stand, but for this, D has to switch back to the new, digital projector. I sense that he doesn’t enjoy the new technology, it doesn’t require much skill or instinct. Press a button and go—it’s impersonal. But D isn’t a man to stand still, even if he has the time. He picks up a microphone and begins chatting with his audience. “Let me know what you think of this next one people. If you want to see it at The Bengie’s, flash your lights at the end.”
It’s common for drive-ins to give simple announcements from the projection booth—we’re out of hamburgers, please park closer to the speaker poll—but this call and response survey is unique. If D would truly change his summer line-up based on headlight flashes, I don’t know, but it allows him a connection with his audience most owners don’t have. After intermission, even the people who drove into the drive-in for the first time and knew nothing of D will know his voice and have a taste of his personality.
When a car makes the mistake of turning on their lights in the middle of a preview D grabs the microphone and scolds, “Thanks for washing it out guy!”
I wait until the next movie is running to ask D my questions. We’ve talked, but I need to clear up basic facts: dates, name spellings, relationships. “So D, your dad opened the theater in 1956 and you bought it in the 80s?” Written in my notebook, this looks like a simple question, but for D, no question about The Bengie’s is as simple as a date in the calendar.
D explains that his dad, Ed Vogel designed the theater, from the concession stand, to the marquee. and over to the curve in the screen. His uncles ran this theater along with The Midway Drive-in, the Dublin Drive-in, and drive-ins in stretching from Baltimore to Ohio. The stories he tells about The Bengie’s are not just workplace stories, they’re the stories of his life—painting speaker poles as a boy, going on road trips with his father to survey land for new drive-ins, working his way through college while running The Bengie’s. His sweet childhood memories and his family squabbles all tie back into drive-ins. The deaths of his biological father and his stepfather---both drive-in owners—remain intertwined with fates of their drive-ins. His beloved cat, Theodore, is buried at the drive-in. His office is decorated with photos of his family and memorabilia from his family’s drive-ins. Asking D what year The Bengie’s opened is like asking someone else to pin down their first memory of their family home—the memories run together in montage and bring forward faces gone for decades and the smell of a particular hand soap—there is no one answer to pinpoint, there’s a life lived.
I think D’s theory that a drive-in reflects its owner is generally correct, but The Bengie’s doesn’t reflect D. The theater and its massive screen do not simply return the waves of light, heat, sound, and energy he puts out; they work in tandem. D and The Bengie’s echo each other.
Plan Your Visit:
3417 Eastern Blvd. Middle River, MD 21220