Drive-in movie theaters have seen a resurgence nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic. But Maryland’s famous Bengies Drive-In Theatre has remained shuttered — leaving its owner to ask why.
D. Edward Vogel said he has been pitching state and local leaders to allow his Middle River drive-in theater to reopen as Maryland eases coronavirus restrictions. Elsewhere across the country, drive-in theaters have seen an unexpected boom as families and movie lovers look for an escape from isolation.
“There was even a story about drive-ins this morning on the ‘Today’ show,” he said this week. “The whole world is talking about drive-ins. But the county and state are saying no."
Vogel and his supporters argue that drive-ins are inherently social-distancing friendly as customers watch movies from the inside of their closed cars. But while patrons do spend the overwhelming majority of their visit isolated from one another, there are chances for contact — at concession stands and public bathrooms.
Vogel said he cannot get a straight answer from government officials as to why he can’t open. He argued that he could space cars to park in every other space to help further adhere to social distancing guidelines — something he said he has been told is a sticking point for reopening the business.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s office has been pushing for state approval to allow Bengies to reopen. In a letter to the Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, Olszewski’s chief of staff, Patrick Murray, likened drive-in theaters to drive-in religious services, which are permitted under coronavirus restrictions.
In response, Steven R. Schuh, executive director for the office of the governor, wrote that because Bengies is subject to the amusement tax, “the governor’s orders are very clear that they cannot operate at this time.”
Vogel said he received a $49,000 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses. But after paying the salaries and health care packages for three full-time employees and operating costs on the property, that money has all but run out.
“I can’t do anything except sit here and go broke,” he said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “2018 was a complete washout. It rained every weekend. I started to get out of the hole last year. Now I’m depleting my savings.”
Vogel is quick to praise most of the work Hogan, a Republican, has done during the pandemic.
“I love him,” Vogel said in reference to Hogan. “I think he has done everything perfectly. But I don’t get this part.”
Hogan’s office said it would continue to look at the situation.
“Bengie’s is a beloved Maryland institution with a great history, one of the last of its kind in the country. We have been in touch with their general manager, and this is something we continue to evaluate as part of the governor’s roadmap to recovery,” wrote Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, in an email.
This is not the first time Vogel has gone head-to-head battling over the fate of his business.
In 2014, the state Court of Appeals ruled that it would not hear a case between Bengies Drive-In against a nearby Royal Farms store. The decision ended a two-year effort to enforce a jury ruling, which was later overturned, ordering Royal Farms to pay $838,000 for a fence to block the convenience store’s lights from interfering with the theater’s operation.
Drive-in movie theaters enjoyed a relatively short golden age that was eroded by the popularity of television, multiplex theaters, the business model of maximizing space in order to capitalize the number of paying customers, and suburban development, according to Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
But COVID-19 and the social distancing realities that come along with it have given many drive-ins new life.
“Automatically you have the distancing rule checked off,” Thompson explained. “In a car, you are hermetically sealed. Drive-in movies are perfect for quarantine. Everyone is in a car is in a quarantined pod.”
Thompson predicts that the drive-in model popularized in the ’60s and ’70s could make a resurgence elsewhere, like with restaurants.
“There are tons of new demands that make those business models terribly attractive,” he said.
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Linda Fairly, a longtime drive-in theater fan, is among Vogel’s patrons who are eager for Bengies to resume operations.
“It’s spring. And we’re tired [of being in the house],” she said.
The Overlea resident remembers when the Baltimore region had around a half-dozen drive-in movie theaters when she was a child. She typically takes her three daughters and two granddaughters to Bengies every other week when it’s open.
Fairly said cars typically are spaced apart at the venue, so social distancing should not be an issue. She questioned why a drive-in theater would be held to the same standard as an indoor movie theater.
Vogel has considered opening the drive-in as a carryout only to help get by financially, selling foods like pizza, pulled pork, poppers and pretzels from the concession stand.
But ultimately, reopening soon will be vital to the future of his business. Typical nights include some customers backing up their SUVs and watching the movie from the back of the vehicle. And weekends usually draw the biggest crowd for marathon triple features.
“I save in the summer to get through the winter,” he explained. “Exactly how do I hang on? Or is this about getting rid of me?”