Best of Baltimore — how they do it: D. Vogel and Bengies drive-in, best holdout

It’s an exhausting job, running the state’s last drive-in movie theater.

Fourteen-hour days. Movie studios making outlandish demands for the privilege of showing their movies. Customers who don’t know how to act at a drive-in and aren’t really interested in following the rules (and anyone who’s ever seen a show at the Bengies knows they’d better follow the rules there). Government agencies whose regulations don’t seem intent on helping the drive-in’s survival. A climate seemingly determined to dump rain at the most inopportune times.

But then the sun sets, and the projector at the 62-year-old Bengies starts shining on what’s said to be the East Coast’s biggest movie screen, and owner-operator D. Vogel remembers why he keeps doing what he’s doing.

The best thing about running the Bengies “is entertaining the public,” Vogel says. “Sunset on an operating night, right when we know we need to start — it still sends chills up my spine. That’s the part where I get to be a showman.“

Then again, it’s hard for Vogel, 60, to imagine himself doing anything else. Drive-ins, those glorious relics of the 1950s and ‘60s where you get to watch movies from the comfort of your car, seemingly projected onto the heavens themselves, are in his blood. Both his father, A. Fred Serrao, and his stepfather, Jack K. Vogel, were in the drive-in business. D. Vogel grew up with projection rooms as his playgrounds, and he’s been the man running the Bengies, the last of a family-run business with ties to the Edmondson, North Point, Annapolis’ Colonial and other long-gone outdoor movie-palaces, for more than three decades.

“It weighs in on everything,” he says of that family legacy

Vogel’s proud that he’s kept the Bengies going, and that people are still showing up for this, its 63rd season. He’s not sure how many years he and it have left, especially in the wake of a long-running dispute with a nearby convenience store over lights that he says leak onto his property; he initially won an $838,000 judgment against it, but the jury decision was later overturned on appeal. He admits he’s getting a little tired of such struggles.

“D. does not run the Bengies,” he says, with just a hint of exhaustion. “The Bengies runs D.”

But then night comes, and the cars start showing up, and the movies start playing, and the people start smiling. The Bengies remains very much alive, and D. Vogel still loves it. The thrill has never gone.

“If I’m here working and I look at that screen and it’s showtime,” he says, “it still goes through me. It bites me hard.”

Bengies Drive-In, 3417 Eastern Blvd., Middle River, 410-687-5627, bengies.com

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