My Visit – 8/10/13:
We had decided to take a day to head south a bit to the Baltimore area. My goal this drive-in season was to visit at least 2 open/operating drive-in theaters in addition to Delsea, and there is a theater right outside Baltimore (a later post!). On the way there, we made a stop at the former Bel-Air Churchville Drive-In Theatre in Churchville, MD.
A few miles off the highway, the drive-in was easy to locate. The marquee remains with the drive-in name partially readable and a large space used for advertisements.
The front area, which used to be a restaurant, is now a garden center (named Big M Garden Center, an ode to the former restaurant “Big M”). A chain-link fence labeled “Beware of Dog” and “Private Property” separates the garden center and drive-in site.
We approached the young men at the garden center to get some information and see if we could get some photos. We found out they only recently acquired the land for their business and cleaned out a lot of old materials from the restaurant (darn it – that would have been cool to see those artifacts!). They said the asphalt business that is on the drive-in site had been facing theft recently and suggested to get permission directly. Luckily, the awesome owner of the garden center walked back with us and one of the guys on the site said we could snap a few photos of the remaining features.
The screen is almost completely gone – small, rectangular panes are all that remains, leaving a zigzag pattern of a screen. Not wanting to impose, I didn’t walk through the brush towards the screen, but there did not seem to be any speaker poles left.
The projection booth/restrooms remain in a dilapidated condition, as well as the concession stand (back of the restaurant). You can still see some of the labels for the bathroom and the name of the drive-in.
Projection Booth/ Restrooms:
There is also some grading left for the driving/parking for the theatre, but nothing overly noticeable.
Attached to the restaurant is the former ticket booth. It was probably really neat to pull up to the window for your tickets and drive on in to watch the movies.
The Bel-Air Churchville Drive-In Theatre opened in 1952, with the capacity for 400 cars. The drive-in also operated the Big M restaurant, where servers would deliver food to your car while on roller-skates!
In the article, “A Bel Air landmark that time passed by,” Josh Mitchell addresses the closing of the drive-in and restaurant, covering many details of the rise-and-fall of the drive-in (The Baltimore Sun, 2005). John Manuel was the original owner of the 11 acre drive-in, but sold to Robert Wagner in 1989. In 1999 the Zelman couple bought into ownership, becoming partners with Wagner. Four years later, Wagner sold the property to the Ferrell family. The theatre and restaurant continued to rent the land from the Ferrell family until 2005. At that point, they could no longer afford to pay the rent. The decline in attendance and income began in 1994 and became unbearable by 2005.
The Bel-Air was lax on rules, allowing food to be brought in without a charge and pets were welcome. Both the drive-in and restaurant had prominent signs on Route 22, drawing in attention and motorists.
The next closest drive-in that is still operating is Bengies DI outside of Baltimore, in Middle River, MD. To give you an idea of the number of drive-ins within a reasonable driving distance, here is a list of a few theatre’s (name, location, and years of operation). The first four succumbed to the closing timeframe of most drive-ins, closing in the 70s and 80s.
Harford DI – Aberdeen, MD 1953-1973
Carlin’s DI – Baltimore, MD 1958 -1977
North Point DI – Dundalk, MD 1948-1982
Pulaski DI – White Marsh, MD 1950s – 1985
Bengies DI – Middle River, MD 1956-present
Side Note: The owners and employees of the Big M Garden Center were very courteous, helpful, and interested in the history of the place. If you live in the area make sure to stop and browse – they have a nice selection!
Bel-Air Churchville Drive-In
3035 Churchville Road