Regardless of the wisdom of that particular double feature, it was what lured us north of Baltimore one recent evening to Bengies Drive-In, one of the region’s only two traditional drive-in movie theaters still in operation. With the DMV’s robust array of outdoor movie nights now shut down because of the coronavirus — along with all indoor screens — there is no other option left for the moviegoer in withdrawal.
In addition to Bengies and the Family Drive-In in Stephens City, Va., there’s a plethora of pop-up drive-ins that have also sprouted, giving competition to Union Market’s popular program of parking-lot screenings, now in its eighth year. The biggest, a new collaboration between Events DC and Broccoli City, will take place in a parking lot at RFK Stadium, with room for 350 socially distanced cars.
Whether you’re new to the drive-in world or just happy to see your favorite form of summer entertainment back in business, we think you’ll like these drive-in options — even if the experience has changed in an age of social distancing.
Opened in 1956, and boasting the country’s largest outdoor screen — 52 by 120 feet, and floating 30 feet off the ground — the quirky, beloved Bengies (no apostrophe) has been around long enough to have had several brushes with death. In 1998, I wrote about how the theater was about to be sold. Three years later, miraculously, it was still around. (At the time, proprietor D. Edward Vogel told me that the comeback was more a “stay of execution than a rebirth.”)
In 2012, a court awarded Bengies $838,000 in damages after Vogel said light pollution from a nearby Royal Farms was threatening the theater’s livelihood. Two years later, the award was overturned, but Bengies somehow soldiered on. Until this year, when again, it seemed on the verge of going under, thanks to mandated coronavirus closures.
But finally, in June, the theater reopened, at slightly less than half of its 750-car capacity.
Some things have changed, as they must: There’s a two-patron minimum per car, each of which is given a wide berth in a revamped parking layout; masks must be worn whenever you are outside of your vehicle; restroom access is limited to half-capacity; the on-site playground is closed; pets are not allowed, until further notice; and tickets sales have moved entirely online — except for the $15 outside-food permit, which must be paid upon arrival, in cash only, at the box office. (Pro tips: The neighboring Royal Farms makes great carryout chicken. And bring insect repellent; the mosquitoes in this neck of the woods — not far from an estuary — are voracious.)
In other ways, many things are very much the same: There’s still an interminable-seeming pre-screening recitation of “house rules,” recited live, by Vogel himself, in a monologue that runs to a half-hour. It’s always been long — delivered in a mix of endearing and grating eccentricity — but coronavirus protocols have tacked on extra regulations, most of which are, quite frankly, common sense.
Unless, of course, you’re entirely new to drive-ins — as Vogel insists is true of most of his customers these days. Some need to be reminded of a few points of etiquette: Don’t accidentally mash on the brake pedal — shining a bright red light in the eyes of the people behind you — when you’re adjusting your front seat. Don’t raise your hatchback door higher than the top clearance of the vehicle, obscuring the screen. Judging by the number of times someone’s car alarm went off during my visit, the audience these days has never set foot in a drive-in.
And how could they?
Here’s what your ticket gets you, in addition to access to a nightly double feature: standard snack-bar fare, including fresh-squeezed lemonade and, on the night I was there, funnel cake (although it wasn’t on the printed menu). At the snack bar, ordering is still done the old-fashioned way, by standing in line (limited to two customers per car at a time). Otherwise, all tickets must be purchased online, with two exceptions: Cars with additional customers without a ticket may pay at the box office. And since many people only stay for the first movie, late-arriving night owls can purchase tickets for the second screening as a stand-alone feature, between 11 and 11:30 p.m. All box office payments are cash-only.
There’s one other thing you’ll find at Bengies, and that’s something that can only be obtained while sitting perfectly still in a car with the engine off: a trip down Memory Lane. Even for people who are going to the drive-in for the first time in their life, they’re not so much revisiting old memories as they are making new ones.
Next up: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Iron Man,” opening July 17.
3417 Eastern Blvd., Middle River, Md. General admission is $10 (minimum purchase of two tickets per car); $5 for ages 4-10; children under 4 free. Showtimes are at 8:45 and 11:15 p.m. bengies.com.
There’s something undeniably wholesome about the Family Drive-In, where the luxury of moviegoing during a pandemic somehow thrives — a mix of the retro and modern convenience. After buying tickets online and ordering food via app, it’s worth taking a moment to look around the Stephens City, Va., theater and marvel at the sight, so elusive these days, of a genuine communal experience. As moviegoers space themselves out, plopping down in lawn chairs, hatchbacks and truck cargo beds, they are brought together under the illumination of a film projection beam — along with starlight and a few fireflies, for good measure.
The social distancing at this theater on the fringe of the Shenandoah Valley — which, like Bengies, is 64 years old — begins with a contactless box office, as moviegoers purchase their double-feature tickets online, checking in by name at the front gate. They’re then directed to park at one of two outdoor screens, the second of which was added in 1988. After a dutiful playing of the national anthem, separate double features begin. (During a recent trip to see “The Jungle Book” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the towering main screen was out of service.)
The Family Drive-In has implemented various safety measures because of coronavirus concerns, including encouraging patrons to wear masks whenever they leave the car, limiting bathroom use to two customers at a time and ensuring that cars are parked at least six feet apart. But the venue has gone to the greatest lengths to ensure social distancing with its concessions system: All food and drinks must be ordered remotely via the FanFood app. (You can also can bring in your own snacks with the purchase of a $10 outside-food permit.)
After scrolling through the variety of traditional movie snacks available, I order an assortment of classics: popcorn, nachos, hot dog, soda and Raisinets (a reasonable $23 before tip). Once I get a text alerting me that my order is ready, I hop in the concessions line — where chalk markers enforce separation — before snagging the food through a pickup window. The stand itself feels frozen in a mid-’80s aesthetic that only enhances the throwback ambiance. All of the concessions staff are sporting protective gloves, though masks, unfortunately, are worn inconsistently. The food is no frills, but the taste of beef, cheese and butter in the summer heat is a welcome indulgence all the same.
On the whole, newfangled technology never overwhelms old-school cinematic purity. Once dusk gives way to darkness, the digitally projected images sharpen — the only obstruction coming from the scuffs and smudges of my windshield. (Pro tips: Wash your windshield beforehand. Arrive plenty early to get a central view of the screen. And for the best sound, tune your radio to the specified FM station to pipe the dialogue directly into your car. Speaker poles positioned all over the lot come in loud and clear, but some bass-heavy scenes strain their capabilities.)
A sense of mutual responsibility hangs in the air — in addition to the fireflies — that feels well suited to current times. For the most part, late-arriving customers cut their lights to avoid disrupting their fellow audience members. And the mid-movie murmuring among the crowd is minimal.
As midnight passes and “The Force Awakens” reaches its midpoint, I decide to embark on the hour-plus drive home. As my tires crunch the gravel, and I turn onto Valley Pike toward Interstate 66 and the District, the voices of Han, Leia and C-3PO accompany me, still filtered through my car speakers. After a half-mile or so, the movie’s sound fades away and a return to reality sinks in — as it does after any worthwhile escape.
Next up: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Iron Man” (Screen 1) with “The Goonies” and “Gremlins” (Screen 2), opening July 17.
5890 Valley Pike, Stephens City, Va. General admission is $9; $4 for ages 3-11; $7 for seniors, first responders and medical personnel. Showtimes are Wednesday through Sunday at 9 p.m. thefamilydriveintheatre.com.
People are hungry for a shared experience, it seems, in whatever form they can find it. Last month, for instance, a pop-up drive-in showing “The Princess Bride” in the parking lot of the Ballston Holiday Inn quickly sold out, at $40 per car. Ocean City has started showing drive-in movies on Wednesday and Friday nights. Even Walmart is getting into the act, having announced plans to turn 160 of its superstore parking lots across the United States into temporary drive-ins, beginning next month. (Follow Walmart on Facebook or Twitter for updates.) The largest new pop-up, Park Up DC, has taken over a parking lot at RFK Stadium to show movies, featuring a 45-foot digital-HD LED screen. Live shows will soon be offered there as well.
It isn’t exactly a new idea.
Union Market was one of the first to turn a parking lot into a drive-in theater, showing movies on the facade of its food hall starting in summer 2012. It has returned this year, albeit with fewer cars and no more walk-ins or picnickers allowed on the pavement. (Friday’s screening of “Space Jam” is already sold out, as is the July 24 screening of “The Lion King.”)
This year, the company that owns and developed Union Market, Edens, has added a second drive-in at its Mosaic development in Fairfax, where its popular annual series of outdoor movies — formerly shown on the wall of the Angelika Film Center — was canceled because of the coronavirus.
Limited to 75 cars, the new Drive-In at Mosaic takes place on the top floor of the Mom’s Organic Market parking garage, where portable toilets have been set up for customer convenience. Carryout food can be purchased from nearby Mosaic restaurants — listed at mosaicdistrict.com/takeout — with one designated person per car to pick up food orders. Tickets for July 24 have already sold out. Check the website for additional screenings in August.
The pop-up drive-in is now more popular than ever, and Edens CEO Jodie McLean thinks she knows why. In a phone interview, McLean summed up the appeal of these programs succinctly: “They create community.”
Looking for a little more of that warm and fuzzy feeling, in a socially distanced setting? Here are some pop-up drive-ins to check out.
Union Market Drive-In
Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE. unionmarketdc.com.
Next up: “Space Jam,” July 17 at 9 p.m.; gate opens at 7:30 p.m. (sold out). $20 per car.
Park Up DC
RFK Stadium Lot 5, 2400 East Capitol St. NE. parkupdc.com.
Next up: “Sonic the Hedgehog,” July 17 at 7 p.m. “Friday,” July 17 at 9 p.m. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” July 17 at 11 p.m. $29-$45 per car.$29-$45 per car. Food trucks will be on site.
Columbia Pike Drive-In Movie Nights
Arlington Career Center, 816 S. Walter Reed Dr., Arlington. columbia-pike.org.
Next up: “The Secret Life of Bees,” July 18 at sunset (between 8 and 8:30 p.m.). Free; registration required.
Drive-In at Mosaic
Mosaic District, 8295 Glass Alley, Fairfax. mosaicdistrict.com.
Next up: “Toy Story 4” and “Jurassic Park,” July 24 at 5:15 and 8:45 p.m. (sold out). $28 per car.
at Savage Mill
Historic Savage Mill, 8600 Foundry St., Savage, Md. visithowardcounty.com.
Next up: “Just Mercy,” July 17 at 8:30 p.m. $10 per car.
at the Vineyard
Running Hare Vineyard, 150 Adelina Rd. Prince Frederick, Md. runningharevineyard.com.
Next up: “Spaceballs,” July 18 at 8:40 p.m. (gates open at 7 p.m.) $25 per car. Concession stand offers wine, wine slushees, beer, water and sodas. Food menu includes popcorn, cheese or pepperoni pizza, hot dogs, tacos, french fries and candy.