Bengies: Nostalgia drives by, not in

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I hold up the possibility that, somewhere in the ravines of his subconscious, D. Vogel once had this conversation with himself: "I've worked in the movie theater business, and I've worked in the automobile business. Now I think I'll buy a drive-in movie business."

But that's not it. You need something more than a simple career orientation to get into the drive-in business these days. Passion helps. A sense of family tradition will get you there, too. D. Vogel says he took on Bengies in 1988 because of his roots.

His grandfather, Dominic Serrao, built movie houses in the East. Vogel's father, A. Fred Serrao (his name was Alfredo Serrao, but he changed it to A. Fred to soften his ethnic persona), built several theaters, including the Gateway Drive-in in New Kensington, Pa. Vogel's father died in the early 1960s, and when his widow remarried she went down the aisle with Jack Vogel, the man who built Bengies on Eastern Boulevard, Middle River, and several other drive-ins throughout the country. (D. Vogel, who prefers a first initial to a first name, bought the business from his stepfather 10 seasons ago; Jack Vogel, 78 now, still owns the land.)

So it has been D. Vogel's dream to see Bengies survive, though he knows he must have been a little loco to try to squeeze profits from an anachronism. Drive-in movies make wonderful nostalgia, but do they make wonderful money?

In 1997, Vogel has the answer.

That's why Bengies is for sale, though it pains Vogel to say so, and I believe that feeling is genuine.

He says he was undercapitalized from the start. He can't afford to hire enough help to maintain the 15-acre site with the 60-foot-by-120-foot screen. Go there any night, and you'll see this 39-year-old guy who looks like either Joe Pesci or Frankie Valli -- I can't make up my mind -- running from concession stand to projection booth. Vogel does a lot of everything at Bengies. He even makes the show time announcements about snacks and mosquito repellent. Lately, he's been announcing that Bengies will close unless he finds a buyer.

Vogel sounds tired, a little burned out.

The thing is, the guy is a great promoter. He puts on a great show. Some of Bengies' dusk-to-dawn multi-movie specials are fabulous. And it's a good place to take pajama-clad kids when there's a kids' movie playing, which isn't frequent enough. ("Leave It To Beaver" opens tonight and it's rated PG.)

"It's an overwhelming amount of work," Vogel says. "I have to do everything here. People tell me I'm a great promoter, but when do I have time to be a promoter?"

He runs into people all the time who say they appreciate Bengies as a landmark. (It's 41 years old.)

"If that place ever closed, I'd die," someone might say.

"When was the last time you stopped by?" asks Vogel.

"Oh, about 20 years ago."

Is Vogel just trying to guilt us into buying tickets tonight?

Maybe. But he sounds committed to getting out of the business.

If we want to keep the drive-ins -- Bengies and the Bel Air are the last two in Maryland -- then we've got to support them. It's part of the responsibility that comes with being a baby boomer and wanting future generations to enjoy movies under the stars as we did. Nostalgia is great, but it's not free.

Vogel's lease on the land where Bengies sits is up next April. He wants to sell the business to someone who cares about it as much as he does. "If this business is not sold as a drive-in, it will disappear," Vogel says.

And become -- what? -- another Wal-Mart?

Waive it goodbye

Cereal Mom reports something curious, if not infuriating: "I've had an MBNA credit card with an annual fee for years. Just replaced it with a First National Bank card with no fee. I call MBNA to ask how I cancel my card. The woman on the phone asks why am I doing that. I say I got another card with no fee. She says, 'I can waive that fee for you.' And I say, 'But you've been charging me the fee for years. Why waive it now?' She says, 'All you had to do was ask.' I said forget it, I already have the other card. So, Danny boy, what's up with that?"

I'm checking, C.M. As the MBNA public relations official said yesterday: We'll get back to you on that.

Catching on to sales pitches

TJI reader Bill Hottman of Timonium knows an advertising euphemism when he hears one. But then, don't we all? The thing is, Bill took the time to write some down and send them in. For instance:

When a merchant claims, "Sale held over by popular demand," what he really means is, "We didn't do very well the first time." The boast, "Our prices are very competitive," actually means, "We cost more." The much-repeated phrase, "Hurry while supplies last," means, "We got a warehouse full of this stuff." And when Hottman hears, "Open late for your convenience," he hears desperation: "We'll stay here all night to get rid of this stuff."

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Observations and comment about life as we know it are welcome. Contact Dan Rodricks by phone at 410-332-6166 (thanks for using ten-digit dialing!); by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278; or by e-mail at TJIDAol.com. Offer void where prohibited.

Pub Date: 8/22/97

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