D Edward Vogel was eight when he first labored on the popcorn stand at Bengies, his household’s drive-in cinema in Center River, Maryland. “I used to be a little bit of a present for individuals,” he mentioned, now 50 years on and a third-generation drive-in proprietor. “I needed to stand on a soda-pop case to place the popcorn within the machine. However I knew the primary rule of any film theatre: don’t let the popcorn burn!”
Bengies was designed by Vogel’s father; state-of-the-art in 1956, it nonetheless boasts the most important projection display within the US. The red-and-blue art-deco signal atop the marquee and the Formica tables are all unique. It’s a self-described “real-live, honest-to-God, all-American, drive-in film theatre.” It’s also the final of its sort within the state of Maryland.

D Edward Vogel, proprietor of Bengies, prepares a movie on his projector. {Photograph}: Patrick Semansky/AP
The late 1950s have been the heyday of the drive-in, with greater than 4,000 of them throughout the US. As of August 2018, in keeping with figures from the United Drive-In Theater Homeowners Affiliation, of which Vogel is secretary, there have been solely 317 left. The decline in recent times, nonetheless, appears to have levelled off. Trade holdouts, resembling Bengies – presently reopening for the season – have weathered change and new openings have bolstered numbers. It will possibly’t be known as a comeback however maybe represents a foothold to make sure the survival of this iconic American attraction.
The primary drive-in opened in 1933 and, because the talkies turned a worldwide phenomenon and the US fell in love with the auto, drive-ins flourished, significantly in rural areas. They supplied a group hub, with households mingling earlier than and after screenings, and shortly turned emblematic of adlescent tradition: in a 1950 article by John Durant for US journal the Saturday Night Submit, they have been described as “parking tons for petters”. Nevertheless, by the 1960s their existence was threatened, first by the 1966 Uniform Time Act (the countrywide adoption of daylight financial savings time), which pushed darkness again by an hour in summer time – and later by the arrival of residence leisure and the packaged pleasures of the multiplex.

‘Drive-ins cater to a way of nostalgia for American tradition immortalised in movies resembling Grease and American Graffiti.’
Pictured is the drive-in diner from American Graffiti {Photograph}: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
The drive-in has a fragile enterprise mannequin: largely seasonal and weak to dangerous climate. One moist summer time can imply the top. Within the 1980s, greater than 1,000 drive-ins closed. The early 21st-century change from 35mm movie to digital projection – an costly improve for what are largely family-run companies – worn out many extra. As we speak’s drive-ins can battle with the costs set by Hollywood distributors.
Newcomers have defied the chances – and maybe good enterprise sense – to open. Within the city of Amenia, New York state (inhabitants 4,000), John and Paul Stefanopoulos are amongst a more moderen technology of drive-in operators. Their father, Billy, got here to the US from Greece within the early 1970s along with his brothers and opened 4 Brothers Pizza, now a sequence of 9 eating places (eight in New York, one in Massachusetts). The close-knit household get collectively twice every week to observe films, which is what gave John and Paul the concept of constructing a drive-in cinema within the subject behind one in every of their eating places, which opened in 2014.

4 Brothers drive-in, Amenia
“We’re far [away] from a cinema and there’s not a lot leisure at night time,” mentioned John. “Folks need to get out of their homes and are available collectively once more, particularly in summer time. It’s the resurgence of Foremost Avenue America.”
Paul added: “The primary factor for us, rising up Greek, we had enormous respect and awe for the American fashion of life, and the drive-in is quintessential Americana.”
Neither brother had been to a drive-in earlier than however the design of 4 Brothers speaks to a collective cultural thought of what a drive-in ought to be. Illuminated 1950s film indicators and classic vehicles embellish the positioning. It has a village fete environment, with a firepit, swinging benches and a youngsters’ playground. At weekends, it hosts reside bands. The car-hop service delivers ice-cream floats from the kitsch snack shack or steaming Greek-style pizza from the 4 Brothers restaurant – direct to your automotive.
The Stefanopoulos brothers had seen most of their customized drove from out of state, and for the 2019 season an Airstream has been transformed into the Resort Caravana (sleeps two, from $319 plus tax, together with films), a Miami Vice-style camper with palm-leaf wallpaper, neon indicators and a yellow-corded phone to name room service. It sits on a non-public deck, which can quickly supply a scorching tub and hammock, from which visitors can watch the movie.

Resort Caravana at 4 Brothers drive-In
As with many different drive-ins, it has turn into a vacation spot in its personal proper, offering native companies within the space with extra customized. In its fifth 12 months, it is extremely a lot a small-town success story. On the peak of summer time, greater than 1,000 visitors collect within the glow of the large display to observe first-run movies.
Many of the newer drive-ins have opened in rural areas, the place real-estate costs are decrease. Subject of Goals in north-west Ohio, the venture of a cinephile couple Rod and Donna Saunders, has two areas so removed from gentle air pollution the night time sky above the vehicles is an attraction in itself. The Bangor Drive-In (season begins 24 Might) in Maine was initially in-built 1950, then reopened by a gaggle of native enterprise homeowners who missed what the drive-in delivered to the group. Hounds Drive-In was self-funded by Preston Brown, who grew up within the cinema his father ran. He constructed it subsequent to his tenting web site within the foothills of North Carolina. It’s packed all summer time, with those that arrive on foot listening from deckchairs.

Subject of Goals drive-in, Ohio. {Photograph}: Jacob Lucius
Drive-ins cater to a way of nostalgia for the American tradition immortalised in movies resembling Grease and American Graffiti. Leaning your seat again for a view of the large display and the celebs above looks like partaking in a dialog with the previous and all of the pleasure that brings. However for locals it additionally provides an reasonably priced various to a visit to the multiplex, which for a household of 4 can price greater than $100; whereas at most drive-ins, the value is $15 to $25 per automotive. They don’t usually inflate the costs on the concession stand (snack bar) both, realizing it could be simple for visitors to convey their very own snacks in. At Bengies, you will get a big popcorn and “bladder-busting” soda for lower than $10.
In some ways, the attraction of the drive-in and the world it conjures up caters to the identical viewers because the immersive theatrics of Secret Cinema or communal viewing at rooftop cinema golf equipment. Immersive-theatre director Michael Counts intends to convey the 2 collectively at August Moon, a recreated drive-in expertise, as a consequence of open in Might 2020 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Bangor drive-in, Maine. {Photograph}: Getty Photos
“It’s going to really feel such as you walked into the outside in 1965 at sundown,” he mentioned, describing the 40,000 sq ft dome that may use theatre and movie expertise to duplicate a starry sky above and fireflies buzzing round, with souped-up classic vehicles to sit down in.
For Vogel of Bengies, nonetheless, the guts of the expertise is about greater than the area; it’s about showmanship and the hard-working households that make it occur. “I’m going out of my solution to be the perfect showman I could be, and I’m not alone. All throughout the nation, drive-in individuals take satisfaction in what they do. There’s no showmanship on the indoors,” he mentioned. “The very best half? As soon as the solar units and it’s time to convey on the present.”
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