By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 31, 2006
The original 1956 marquee at the Bengies Drive-In Theatre, which is named after its Middle River neighborhood, had a misplaced apostrophe in the name—“Bengie’s.” Proprietor D. Edward Vogel says there is a “very controversial” story behind the stray punctuation mark. He lights a cigarette in the bright May sun, stands on the asphalt before a newly repainted replica of the bygone sign affixed to the drive-in’s concessions building, and starts to tell it: “My natural father was A. Fred Serrao. You need to know this. He Americanized his Italian name. His father never forgave him.”
Hours pass. The apostrophe story still isn’t finished. By the time the punch line is delivered, the sun is sinking below the top of the Bengies’ 6,240-square-foot movie screen, the biggest on the East Coast, and Vogel (who goes by D.) has nearly emptied his pack of smokes. As it turns out, the apostrophe and the size of the screen are related—an epic story that takes an epoch for fast-talking D. to tell.
“You asked me about the Bengies,” Vogel explains. “The Bengies is my favorite subject, and I answered your question.” (While many patrons refer to the theater as “Bengies,” as if it belonged to a guy named Bengie, à la the original marquee, Vogel always includes the definite article—“the Bengies.”)
It’s easy to forgive Vogel’s multi-stranded yarn. First off, on June 6 the Bengies will turn 50 years old, a proper occasion for a full oral history of the place given by the guy who owns the business, books the slate of current-release movies that screen each weekend night, runs the projector, and handles the PA announcements. Secondly, after years of uncertainty over the theater’s fate, Vogel is about to own the land his business sits on, so—for the first time in decades—he believes the end of the Bengies is not near. Finally, Vogel was raised to talk endlessly, so he can hardly help it if his stories get away from him.
D. Vogel was born in Pennsylvania, the son of Serrao, a movie-theater developer who died when Vogel was 3. His mother, Aileen, then married an acquaintance of Serrao’s, Jack Vogel of Ohio, an architect-engineer who designed and helped build movie theaters, including more than 300 drive-ins. Thus, Jack Vogel (known in the business as the Frank Lloyd Wright of drive-ins, but known to D. as Dad) was often on the road checking in on his far-flung projects. Young D.—the youngest of the six Serrao children Jack Vogel adopted—was his father’s co-pilot on many such trips, assigned by his mother an important task: to talk nonstop in order to keep his dad alert at the wheel.
By the time Vogel was honing his storytelling skills in his dad’s car, the Bengies was already up and running. Jack Vogel was in business with his brothers, Hank and Paul, and they came to Maryland to build theaters for Durkee Enterprises—the company that gave Baltimore many theaters, of which only the Senator survives. Then, in 1954, they designed and built the erstwhile Edmondson Drive-In on Route 40 West in Catonsville for developer George Brehm. Two years later, after Hank Vogel found the Bengies property, the brothers bought it and built their own drive-in.
“Hank is the one that I really got close to,” D. Vogel says. Paul Vogel was an Army colonel, and the military was his life’s focus, though he had a stake in the business. Hank Vogel’s role was to build the drive-ins that Jack Vogel designed. “Once the Bengies was built, Uncle Hank chose to stay here,” Vogel continues. “And I started to work for him in the summers,” in the mid-1970s, staying in a rented apartment in a house right behind the Bengies’ screen. When Hank died in 1978, “we were all devastated,” Vogel remembers, but the Bengies never skipped a beat.
Vogel took a break from college after Hank died, to run the Bengies and two indoor Vogel-owned theaters nearby. But he soon grew resentful about his lack of a say in how the family business was run by Jack Vogel, who was in Ohio. So D. Vogel quit and resumed college while his older brother Fred took over the Bengies, which after a few years was leased to R/C Theatres. “The Bengies had left the Vogels’ hands,” Vogel says sadly. “And I refused to set foot in there.” The bitterness ran deep, and Vogel virtually stopped talking with his brother and father. In the meantime, he worked at the city’s old movie theaters—the Towne, Mayfair, New, and Hippodrome—and sold cars for Smith Motors.
Eventually, Vogel ran into the Bengies’ concessions manager around town, and she asked him to visit the eastern Baltimore County drive-in. “I did not like what I saw,” he says. “The place looked like a dump—sound poles were missing, the grass was knee-high.” The concessions manager asked Vogel to lease it. After much family debate and in-fighting, Vogel fulfilled her request in 1988 with a year-to-year lease.
He immediately set about trying to buy the land from his family. The heartache and haggling over this issue almost buried the Bengies in the late 1990s. But just before Vogel’s dad died in the fall of 2004, the last issue holding up the property sale—changing the zoning from residential to commercial—was approved, with a covenant restricting the land’s use to entertainment purposes. Today, D. awaits the final settlement papers to sign.
So why the apostrophe on the original marquee? That, after all, is how Vogel started this story. “Because Dad thought it was cute!” he exclaims.
Jack Vogel ordered it built that way—with his brothers’ blessings, though they hadn’t noticed the apostrophe in the marquee drawings. The sign arrived for installation just as the brothers were in the middle of a dispute over the size of the screen, causing the argument to escalate. Jack had designed the screen large; Hank wanted it that big, but Paul thought it was too expensive. “Everything’s big around here,” Hank argued. Just then, as D. Vogel recounts, a very large horse fly landed on Paul’s arm, so big that Paul didn’t know what it was. After Hank whacked it with a spade, smashing it into a gooey mess on Paul’s arm, he sealed the deal: “See,” he repeated, “everything’s big around here.”
“At that moment, it was all settled,” Vogel says. “There was an apostrophe on the marquee, and there would be a big screen. And that screen is one of the reasons I’m just hellbent the Bengies is going to stay here. No, the Bengies wasn’t the nicest theater the Vogels ever built, most certainly. But the screen is exactly right.” And today the marquee, which was replaced in 1973 without the apostrophe, is too.