One of my favorite warm-weather traditions is to take in a double or triple-feature at the Bengies Drive-In, which opens for the season tonight. The area's sole surviving specimen of a once-flourishing movie-exhibition format, Bengies offers the opportunity to see three current films, if your backside can go the distance, for the you-can't-afford-not-to-go admission price of $9 per person. Or roughly 75 percent of what you would pay to see Oblivion, and only Oblivion, at the multiplex this weekend, where you'll enjoy the un-sublime non-pleasure of being distracted by your fellow patrons' glowing smartphone screens throughout the film. (Only those patrons who are pitiable, uncouth savages, of course. But one bad Apple iPhone user can spoil the whole bunch, as Confucius said.)
You need wheels to get there: It's a 2.5-hour round trip from DC to Easton, MD, where Bengies is located. You can make some of that cash back by bringing your own food, though you should buy an honor-system outside food permit for $10 if you do that. Pack a picnic basket; you'll be there for six or seven hours, remember. (Alcohol is verboten, a rule always strictly observed by everyone, just like the 55 mph speed limit posted on Interstate 95.)
But I don't go to Bengies to see good movies on the cheap. I go to Bengies to see cheap movies (regardless of how swollen their budgets are) on the good. Er, that is, in the most enjoyable environs possible. You sacrifice some presentation quality at a drive-in, obviously; you're watching the movie through your windshield (unless you bring lawn chairs, which are allowed and which I strongly recommend.).
Bengies is not for films to which you expect to pay rapt attention and couldn't bear to miss a line of dialogue. Bengies
is for the kind of stuff you'd be happy to watch on an plane, or
on Netflix on a rainy Tuesday night. For example, I was keen to see Moonrise Kingdom last summer, and I would not have entrusted my first experience of a new Wes Anderson movie to the set of variables that is the Bengies experience. But I was glad to re-watch Moonrise Kingdom there, sandwiched on a bill between Brave, the early, family-friendly feature, and Ted,
the R-rated midnight movie. That's an ideal Bengies lineup: One
movie I love, plus two I'll sit still for in the right company and
under the right circumstances.
Circumstances are where Bengies excels. They advertise "the BIGGEST theatre screen in the USA!" (with a clarifying footnote!),
but Bengies' real appeal is its atmosphere, never better experienced
than on a warm summer night. The place opened in 1956, and it retains its
quaint, Eisenhower-era architecture. The snack bar has an impressive
variety of made-on-site junk food; fresher, tastier, and cheaper than
what's available at any chain cinema, unless your chain cinema has a
burger grill and a deep fryer and a cookie oven.
My favorite thing is the tween-feature interstitial programming: Vintage, cartoon snack ads (see above), anti-smoking advisories, short films offering brycream-era dating tips (!) and other bulletins from bygone times, stirred in not just with trailers for new films that will actually play the Bengies in the coming months, but an utterly random assortment of curiosities. I recall that one break between features included trailers for the 1956 epic Around the World in 80s Days, the 1981 Sean Connery-starring sci-fi dud Outland, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching old movie trailers is, to me at least, superb amusement.
You won't get back to DC until 3 a.m. or later if you stall for all three films. A Bengies visit requires some planning, but on a warm, clear night, it's more than worth the shlep. Are you a movie lover or aren't you?