Lost Drive-In Theaters in Maryland; The Vanished Pastime of a Generation

There’s a good chance that if you’re better than 40 years old, you have a vivid recollection or two from a drive-in movie theater. After all, more than 4,000 of them once peppered the American landscape. For Bob Mondello, National Public Radio’s film critic, the most potent memories are of the zany ploys he used to lure customers to the drive-ins of the Roth theater chain, where he was advertising director as a young man. In a 2000 piece on Weekend All Things Considered, Mondello remembered dusk-to-dawn John Wayne films, racing movies and all night horror-thons replete with concessions colored blood red.

Regrettably, Americans’ passion for drive-ins has since cooled. Enormous screens that brightened movie goers’ hearts have since succumbed to neglect or given way to redevelopment. There were once nearly fifty drive-ins in Maryland alone. Today, there are just a couple, including Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre near Baltimore.

Elkridge Drive-in 4

Elkridge Drive-In Theatre, circa 1948 (Courtesy Maryland Historical Society [PP30.800.38])

Nevertheless, drive-ins had a good run, in large part because they combined two American obsessions. After World War II, movies became a more accessible pastime, less something fit for a grand theater. Right around then, too, cars became a part of many families. Drive-ins mixed those luxuries in perfect measure.

“You could argue that the appeal of drive-in theaters stems from combining two things Americans dearly love: movies and cars,” Mondello told me. “The romance of the automobile is indisputable—NASCAR drivers refer to their rides as “she,” designers give Detroit’s sportiest models feminine, coke-bottle shapes—while movies offer the romance of an escape from the everyday into a world of adventure. So what better way to forget your troubles on a warm summer night than to take your honey (or your family) to a drive-in for a double-feature?”

Look for these icons of the baby boomer generation, however, and the marks they left have all but vanished. While in Maryland recently, I sniffed out a handful of old drive-ins around the Washington, D.C.-to-Baltimore corridor. I found few footprints left from what these sites had once been.

I parked on Cinema Court in Clinton, for instance, but couldn’t make out even the barest trace of this ground’s past life: a concession stand and projection booth, rows and rows of ramps and a towering screen that once illuminated laughing or terrified or kissing faces with the glow it cast. The residents of this neighborhood are clearly proud of their homes and keep them well, but the Ranch Drive-In, where Mondello recalls all-night Elvis Presley movies—five of them back-to-back—exists in memory and pictures only.

Ranch Drive-in

Ranch Drive-in 1

Cinema Court, what was once the Ranch Drive-In

I found similar states of redevelopment at six other theaters: the North Point, Elkridge, Hillside, Hancock, Super Chief, 301. The only theater that was anywhere near recognizable as a drive-in was the ABC in Oxon Hill, but that, too, showed signs of impending development. This transformation is understandable; when technology allowed Americans to watch movies at home, the drive-in passed its prime and made the ominous transition from a beloved and ubiquitous form of recreation to one that was quaint and antiquated. Land that was once far removed from suburbia’s tendrils soon found itself surrounded by growing neighborhoods.

More than ninety percent of drive-ins have been lost, but there remain a many—upwards of 350—that refuse to surrender. A number of websites keep alive the memories of theaters that once were and direct movie goers to those left to be found (such as Drive-In Theatres of the Mid-Atlantic Past and Present and The Drive-In Theater). Says Mondello: “For 21st century audiences, there’s a retro appeal in this kind of entertainment, and also the appeal of escaping crowded suburbs and shopping malls for a drive to the relative quiet of a setting open and uncluttered enough to support a drive-in’s need for parking space and darkness.”

In that sense, the modern drive-in experience is as much an escape from the growth that has claimed so many old theaters as it is a vicarious thrill through the films that light up the screen.

ABC Drive-in 2  ABC Drive-in 1 ABC Drive-in

ABC Drive-in, Oxon Hill (can you see the bedded buck, top right?). Will be homes soon.

Elkridge Drive-in 3  Elkridge Drive-in

Elkridge Drive-in 2

The Elkridge Drive-in today; development coming soon. Relics from its past life?

Hancock Drive-In  Hancock Drive-in 2

Hancock, MD Drive-in concession stand and projection booth.

 North Point Drive-in   North Point Drive-in 1

North Point Drive-in, Dundalk, in the process of becoming new homes.

Hillside Drive-in   Hillside Drive-in 1

Hillside Drive-in, Coral Hills, now a school and community center

 Super Chief Drive-in    Super Chief Drive-in 2 Super Chief Drive-in 1

Super Chief Drive-in, Fort Washington. Now a commuter parking lot.

301 Drive-in 301 Drive-in 3 301 Drive-in 2

301 Drive-in, Waldorf. Developed into a shopping center. Any traces are found in the woods behind.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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9 Responses to Lost Drive-In Theaters in Maryland; The Vanished Pastime of a Generation

  1. Kevin O'Connor says:

    Thanks, Ben, for this piece on these vanishing landmarks of post war American culture. It was all essentially inevitable. If development pressures hadn’t done in the drive-ins, Hollywood’s conversion to digital would have. It cost an enormous amount of money for theaters/drive-ins to switch over to digital projection. Those drive-ins that weathered the development pressures are, in many cases, now closing because of the mandatory digital changeover that they just can’t afford. Honda has a whole campaign for people to nominate drive-ins across the country to select a few lucky ones to receive grants from Honda to make the digital conversion. Charity, at this point, may be the best hope for the drive-ins. I would hope that states would see the value in granting tax breaks and issuing landmark status to the remaining drive-ins out there so that future generations can experience that same summer evening thrill that is now lost to so many.

  2. Dean Hooper says:

    Thanks for the memories – while not familiar with MD drive-ins, the same is true of those which were once here in PA and a favorite for young couples dating.

  3. Allan Hall says:

    Thanks for the article and the memories.

    Growing up in Oxon Hill with relatives in Fort Washington and Clinton in MD and Winchester VA, I have fond memories of visits to ABC, Super Chief and Ranch Drive-Ins on a regular basis during my childhood years with my family and later with friends and dates in my teens. The Winchester Drive-In was a summer treat when visiting relatives, piling into my uncles pick up with lawn chairs and coolers.

  4. Chris says:

    Hi Ben,
    I lived off of Mountain Rd across the street from the Shore Drive-In Movie Theater in Maryland. Is there any chance you or any of your readers might have photos of the sign that was at the entrance of this once wonderful place? If so, would you be so good as to share them with me?
    Thanks, Chris

  5. Scott says:

    Ben,
    The old Pulaski Drive In on Route 40 in Baltimore County is gone. But the field is still very open. Most of the site has been regraded into a large water run off pond. Last I drove by only the single steel support of the large metal sign on the Route 40 entrance remained. So can you make a living chasing abandoned things? Looks cool but it appears you need day job.

  6. Dean says:

    There was a drive in on rt 140 between Taneytown and Emmitsburg Md, just past the curve if your heading north, its been cleared out about 8 yrs ago after a local attempted to reopen it and the community fought the idea thinking Porn movies would once again be clear to see from the road like they were in the 70s, 80s. do you have info or old photos of this one?

    • Scott says:

      Dean
      Sorry I have no photos on memories of the Route 40 Drive In near White Marsh. Ebenezer Road is probably best known closest road to this site.

  7. Dean says:

    Property value ran the drive ins out of business, so much land was needed to make it happen that taxes became an issue that forced many land owners to sell to developing agents.

  8. Chuck Laur says:

    My name is Chuck Laur. In 1986 I bought a lot and built a log home. It’s located just behind where the screen was at the drive-in called The Lake Drive-in.located on the corner of Rt 32( Sykesville Rd) & Pine Knob RD in Sykesville Md. Any info or photos would be great to have!

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