Oh, the stories the parking lot at 6000 Baltimore National Pike could tell. Of first dates and teenage make-out sessions. Of dead batteries and tires stuck in the mud. Of popcorn and hot dogs, B movies and cartoons. If this lot, which now serves a Home Depot, could give up its secrets, it would reveal the world that was the Edmondson Drive-In.
In the 1950s, drive-ins flourished around Baltimore, and the Edmondson came into full flower in 1954 under the design hand of Jack Vogel (who later built and then ran the Bengies, Baltimore’s only remaining drive- in) and ownership of George Brehm Sr., who transformed a grassy field into a gravel lot with an enormous screen, concession stand, playground and parking for 1,200 cars. A giant, stylized marquee with a big lighted arrow pointed folks into the lot, where a forest of speakers stood on poles like miniature birdhouses. Families with small children, couples on dates and groups of young folks looking for an inexpensive summer night out flocked there throughout the mid-’60s, the drive-in’s heyday. The promise of two movies for around $2.50 per car was a deal too sweet to pass up.
“The trick was to book the best possible main picture with the worst co-feature available,” Brehm told The Sun in a 1983 interview. “You opened with a good show but you wanted the bad show [to be] so bad it would drive most of the audience out so you could get a whole new crowd in for the second showing of the first picture. We made an awful lot of money off some awful bad pictures.”
My husband and his roommate saw an awful lot of those awful bad pictures in the ’80s. “[The drive-in] has a certain aesthetic that can’t be duplicated,” reflects the roommate, Chris Dreisbach, director of Applied Ethics and Humanities in the Division of Public Safety Leadership at Johns Hopkins University. “The idea that everybody is sort of by themselves together, all in same space sharing the same experience.”
You went, he explains, because you wanted to be outside, you wanted to laugh and you didn’t want to have to think too much. The movie was somehow secondary, though “it had to be a B movie,” he says, “[especially horror movies] like ‘The Last House on the Left’ or ‘Legend of Boggy Creek.’
Although Dreisbach attended drive-ins in his native Minnesota, the Edmondson, he says, seemed particularly evocative of Baltimore. “There was something kind of unpretentious and traditional about it and the way people were drawn to it, much like some would be drawn to some long-standing tradition,” he says. “Harbor East doesn’t strike me as Baltimore, but Edmondson does.” John Waters and Barry Levinson must have shared the same sentiment, as the drive-in made appearances in “Polyester,” “Serial Mom” and “Tin Men.”
If the Edmondson symbolized the simple pleasure of watching movies outside, Westview Cinemas was its opposite— all sophistication and luxury. The epitome of the suburban “new frontier,” Westview, a sleek, flat-roofed beauty of white granite and glass, held court from a small hill overlooking the dowdy drive-in. A swooping white roof jutted over the entrance to create a modern porte-cochere, and heated sidewalks prevented snow and ice from accumulating.
Built in 1965 for Brehm and Joseph Einbinder by Fenton and Lichtig (the architectural firm also responsible for the Hillendale Theatre), the theater’s original color scheme featured navy, gold and green in its sweeping curtains, patterned carpet and cushy Heywood-Wakefield seats with padded arms and reclining backs. It had a massive Technikote screen measuring 51 feet wide by 22 feet high. But the lobby was the real star, with its crystal chandeliers and small pool with a life-size statue of a female water bearer in ancient dress at center.
Like many cinemas of the era, the Westview started out with one screen and then multiplied. By the end of its life, the theater held 10 screens, one devoted to arthouse movies (“Henry and June,” the first film rated NC-17, played there in the early ’90s). The entirely forgettable Bette Midler vehicle “That Old Feeling” was the last film shown.
In that 1983 interview in which he discussed his wily strategy at the drive-in, Brehm remarked that “the land has become more valuable than the drive-in that’s built on it” and that he had turned down “tempting offers.” By 1991, he’d given in to temptation and closed the Edmondson Drive-In. Westview Cinemas lasted until 1997, when it was torn down to become a Circuit City (now the site of a brand new HH Gregg appliance and electronics store). Only the Edmondson’s marquee remains, its arrow pointing down the hill to the Home Depot.