Here's the thing about good ole Bengies: It's not just a drive-in movie theater, it's an institution. In fact, it's been nominated one of Maryland's official treasures as part of the state's Year 2000 celebration. Reports of Bengies' demise have been frequent and premature. The Big B survives, hard by Frog Mortar Creek in southeastern Baltimore County, one of only two remaining drive-ins in Maryland. There are only 520 left in the United States.
For nostalgic reasons, Baltimore-area baby boomers - including this one - would like to see the Bengies live on forever, under the management of D. Edward Vogel, a passionate drive-in man whose family has been in the business for a couple of generations.
But here's the thing about "D" - that's what everyone calls him - Vogel: He has a lot of rules. If you haven't had the occasion, call one of the two Bengies telephone information lines. You'll hear Vogel go on and on about the rules of procedure at his drive-in. Some of it is helpful, especially if you're out of the habit of drive-ins, or you've never been. Some of Vogel's message is funny. Some of it is yadda yadda yadda.
Here's the thing about the rules at Bengies: One of them prohibits you from driving into the place with food and beverages in your car. Understandably, Vogel wants customers to patronize his snack bar. So if you want to bring your own from home, you have to pay an extra $5 for the privilege. It's a cover charge.
Here's the thing about the food rule: There's no sharing allowed. You can't bring a bag of potato chips into Bengies and share them with someone who hasn't paid the cover charge.
Share your stuff with another car in violation of Bengies rule and you are permanently expelled from the drive-in.
Think I'm kidding?
Call Bengies and listen to Vogel's recording.
Or listen to this story passed along from Charlie Arcodia.
Arcodia, who lives in Harford County, took his wife, Pat, and three daughters to Bengies for the twilight screening of "Chicken Run" on the night of Tuesday, June 27. It was their first trip to the drive-in. They went with friends, Sue and Jerry Quinn, and their two daughters; and Lisa and Al Mirarchi, and their two daughters. "Seven sweet little Catholic schools girls," Lisa Mirarchi called them.
There were three vehicles. The Arcodias, Quinns and Mirarchis each paid the $14 entrance charge at the box office. In addition, the Quinns and the Arcodias purchased $5 food permits.
The Mirarchis did not.
According to Charlie Arcodia, the three wives sat together on portable camp chairs, between Arcodia's sport utility vehicle and the Mirarchi's station wagon, to watch the movie. Lisa Mirarchi bought popcorn and a soda from Bengies snack bar. Patricia Arcodia bought a soft drink. The girls bought "Nerds" candy and popcorn.
Sue Quinn, on the other hand, brought a big plastic tub of those cheesie puff balls, purchased earlier at BJ's Wholesale Club.
Here's the thing about those cheese balls: They don't do well in the rain. When rain started to fall on Bengies, the girls and moms scampered to various cars for cover. One of the girls picked up the big plastic tub of cheese balls and jumped into the Mirarchis' station wagon.
You catch that last part?
The cheese balls went into a car that did not have a Bengies food permit.
And don't think for one minute that the Mirarchis or any of their friends were going to get away with having cheese balls in a car that did not have a Bengies food permit.
A sharp-eyed member of the Bengies food patrol spotted the violation through the rear window of the Mirarchis' station wagon.
And she ordered the Mirarchis, the Quinns and the Arcodias -- the whole lot of them -- to leave.
Apparently, if you're a party to a Bengies rules infraction -- if you allow cheese balls into a car that does not have a permit for cheese balls, or if you are merely seated in a car with unsanctioned cheese balls - you stand to be evicted as well.
"No one ate the cheese balls [in the Mirarchis' station wagon]," said Pat Arcodia. "They were just put in there, out of the rain."
Charlie Arcodia refused to leave. So a Baltimore County police officer was summoned.
"Officer Nicholas Franckos was very polite," Arcodia wrote in a recent letter of complaint to Vogel. "He was very helpful in calming down my three daughters -ages 5, 6 and 7 - who were crying [because] they were taken from a movie and did not understand why their father had to be dealing with a police officer."
"The girls were very upset, they were all crying," said Lisa Mirarchi. "My 7-year-old daughter, Kara, said to me, 'Mommy, they must not be Catholic here because they don't want us to share. In school, we're taught to share.' How do you like that? In a 7-year-old's mind, we were getting thrown out because we were not supposed to share cheese balls."
Pretty ridiculous stuff. Strident enforcement of a dubious rule on a night when only a dozen vehicles had driven into a struggling drive-in. Little girls crying. Adults with hard feelings about a beloved drive-in they should want to embrace. The Arcodias, both lawyers, pressing now for an apology, a refund of their ticket charges, threatening legal action unless they get it.
It looks as though they're going to get it. Vogel's lawyer, T. Wray (May I call you T?) McCurdy, said as much yesterday.
"The last thing we want to do is chase business away," McCurdy said.
Here's the thing I wanted to say: A lot of people love Bengies -- more with their hearts than with their money. Vogel needs to get a new generation of customers into Bengies, but this incident with the "seven little sweet Catholic school girls" certainly didn't advance that mission. We all want Bengies to survive. We'd like to take our families there, if only once during the drive-in season.
So, lighten up on the insignificant violations of the rules. Don't make loving Bengies harder than it should be.
Come on, D.