Chris Knoff of Mount Rainier knows the routine. The Wisconsin native grew up watching drive-in movies, so when he decided to go with his wife and her sister to the Bowie Baysox Drive-In one recent Friday evening, he went prepared. He had the folding chairs, the boombox and the SUV, which he backed in, opening the hatchback to make a comfy spot from which to watch the double feature.
Knoff had staked out a great location with a clear view of the screen and open spaces on all sides. That wasn't hard, though, because fewer than a dozen cars were in the lot at any time. The movies were "The Cannonball Run" and "Stroker Ace," a Burt Reynolds auto-racing double feature. The night had potential, with Reynolds back in the public eye this summer in a movie version of "The Dukes of Hazzard." Maybe it was the scorching heat that night, or maybe Bowie just doesn't love Burt.
In the compact Flexcar I'd rented, I squirmed in the front seat listening to the sound on a low frequency on the car radio -- an upgrade from the metal speakers that once hooked onto car windows. It was so hot outside that I had to periodically blast the air conditioning. I'd forgotten my bug spray, and the stadium parking area abuts woods, so I spent the first movie swatting mosquitoes until I resigned myself to polka dotted legs.
My poor planning didn't ruin the evening, though, because the sound was crisp, the big screen's picture clear and the atmosphere pleasantly low-key. There were groups of kids trooping to and from the concession stand, couples howling with laughter in dark cars and families spread out on the asphalt with lawn chairs and blankets. I felt transported to another time, and with Burt Reynolds onscreen I half-expected to see "Mondale for President" bumper stickers, side ponytails and acid-washed cutoffs.
Carroll County-based American Family Entertainment runs the drive-in with a mixture of nostalgia and modern technology. The small staff is dedicated to its mission. "All of us want to see drive-ins come back," said Steve Miller, the general manager. He and other employees described going to drive-in theaters when they were younger, and Miller smiled when he talked about the family atmosphere, with "the kids in the footie pajamas" who fell asleep in the back seat while parents watched the late feature.
Although the emotional connection may appeal to older patrons, Miller touted other aspects of the experience. The movies are shown digitally, giving the picture better clarity than with reels, which most movie theaters still use. The inflatable screen is large enough to see from the farthest corner of the parking lot.
Knoff said, "I expected it to be a lot more makeshift, but it's pretty big."
Another bonus: the low prices. Tickets are $20 per car, with the maximum number of viewers determined by the number of seat belts. The food costs much less than at a typical movie theater: $3 for a hamburger, $1 and $2 for big bags of popcorn, and $2 for sodas from a machine, for example. There are giveaways at every show, usually tied to the evening's theme. The night I was there, it was flowers -- although the connection to Burt Reynolds is still a mystery.
The movies are second-run, keyed to a theme such as this weekend's back-to-school and romance double feature, uniting "Tommy Boy" and "A Knight's Tale" tomorrow and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "50 First Dates" on Saturday.
The movie selection, Miller said, is a departure from the usual fare on cable and satellite television. "We try to show things that people won't be able to see on TV at home," he said. Classic horror movie night was a good example: Terry Lee Roth, manager of the Bowie location, said he tried to pick crowd-pleasing features, including 1959's "The Tingler," with the tagline, "When the screen screams, you'll scream, too!"
Miller said big crowds turned out for "The Love Bug" and a double feature with the first two "Harry Potter" films. The company rents the space from the Baysox and can screen movies only when there's no game.
To enable it to show movies any night of the week and build on the success of the Bowie location, the company plans to open Bumpers Drive-In next year, a year-round, two-screen drive-in in Taneytown, Md., northeast of Frederick, where the Monocacy Drive-In was until 1984.
As long as the temperature stays above 50 degrees (to keep the screen inflated), American Family Entertainment will show movies in Bowie through the fall. Miller said the company's goal is to see audiences "not stuck behind the TV at home."
Roth added, "And not gouging them on the price."
Bowie Baysox Drive-In Movies start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; gates open at 7.
"Tommy Boy" and "A Knight's Tale," both PG-13, will be shown tomorrow; Saturday's show features "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "50 First Dates," both PG-13. Prince George's Stadium, 4101 NE Crain Hwy., Bowie. 301-464-4806 or 301-805-6000 or baysox.com/events/movies.