A Bel Air landmark that time passed by


Back-seat smoochers take note: The Bel Air Drive-In Theatre has shown its last feature.

For the first time in 53 years, Maryland's oldest drive-in will not open in April, typically the start of the drive-in season. The theater's year-round Big M restaurant served its last double-decker burger and crinkle fries in the fall.

The Bel Air, known for letting patrons arrive in pajamas with their own picnic dinner, could no longer afford the rent off Route 22 in Churchville.

"Business is business, hon. Money is money," part-owner Karen Zellman, 47, said in a quavering voice. "I have been hurting physically since I had to close the restaurant. And knowing that we're not opening the drive-in, that's probably another stone that's very hard to swallow. ... I just thought it would never end."

The closing of the Bel Air leaves Maryland with just one traditional open-air theater, Bengies Drive-In, on Eastern Boulevard in Baltimore County. Bengies opened in 1956, four years after the Bel Air.

Residents who went to the drive-in as children and later as parents are bidding farewell to a local institution that brought to mind a disappearing era. On any given Saturday night, the lot next to the restaurant's white, wavy awning was filled with patrons who brought their vintage cars - from 1950s Chevys to '60s Corvettes to Mike Weddle's 1930 Ford Model A coupe.

"Many of the landmarks are going or gone, and that's just one more of them," said Weddle, 44, a lifelong Harford County resident. "It was all a nostalgic thing, and the cars just fit perfect."

The Maryland theaters opened in the pre-mall era when more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the United States; today, there are about 400, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

Audiences would rather pay the extra few dollars at an indoor multiplex theater where they have more movie options, air conditioning and stadium seating, industry experts say.

Rising land values haven't helped the drive-ins' cause. Rent becomes too high or, in the case of a theater owner who owns the land, selling the property becomes more and more attractive.

"The land once was on the outskirts of town, but as suburban sprawl takes place that land becomes too valuable to operate a business just at night," said Jennifer Sherer Janisch, a drive-in aficionado from Las Vegas.

The Bel Air is a case in point.

As recently as two years ago, Zellman vowed to keep open the theater "as long as I have a breath in my body." But business had been in decline since 1994 and last year got so bad that on the usually popular college night only five cars showed up to the field that once attracted 400 cars, she said.

At $8 per adult and $4 a child, ticket sales didn't bring in enough money to operate the theater and restaurant, Zellman said.

Zellman began working at the Big M in the early 1990s when her brother-in-law, an employee there, asked her to help out. She loved the family atmosphere so much that in 1999 she and husband, Lee Zellman, bought into ownership. Their partner, Robert Wagner, who worked at the theater as a teenager when his family managed it, bought the property in 1989 from original owner John Manuel.

But as the theater fell on hard times, Wagner sold the 11-acre tract to the Ferrell family two years ago for $1 million, property records show. The theater had rented from the Ferrells since then.

Kent Ferrell said his family has no current plans for the "investment property."

The atmosphere at the Bel Air was more relaxed than most theaters. There were few rules, so patrons were allowed to bring food, even at the restaurant's peril. By contrast, Bengies requires patrons with outside food and drinks to buy permits, according to the "house rules" listed on its Web site.

"You can do whatever you want - you can bring dogs," said Samantha Rader, 17, who lives with her family next to the Bel Air. "But at the indoor theater you can't. In here, you can just hang out with your friends and don't have to pay that much."

The Bel Air's busiest time was between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when it operated seven nights a week, showing two movies nightly.

Time was, patrons would park next to small speakers atop white poles in the field. (Later, patrons would tune in to 530 AM or 88.7 FM to listen to movies.) Big M servers on roller skates would bring food to cars.

That was when drive-ins were big - Maryland alone had 47 in 1958, at the industry's peak.

"There was the Bel Air Drive-In, the Harford Drive-In in Aberdeen, one in Elkton, one on Route 40 in Golden Ring," Karen Zellman said.

The Bel Air's original marquee is still standing, as is the 50-foot-tall screen made of plywood.

"We had people from Virginia coming to our drive-in, from New Jersey," Zellman said. "The Bel Air Drive-In and the Big M is something that gets in your blood because of the love of people."

Sharon Gray, 56, of Churchville said the drive-in could never be replaced.

"One woman says her daughter never has been to the drive-in," said Gray. "She says, 'Where am I going to take her?'"

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