Mike Sangiacomo's Drive-In Diary 3

Tales of the Starlight Drive-In

Editor’s Note: There may be a chill in the air, but take a moment to cast your mind back to warm summer nights, full of bugs, kids laughs and humidity. Michael San Giacomo, in a shameless effort to promote his Image Comic Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In, visited drive-in theaters around the country this summer and early fall and staged signings of the book. He was joined by artists who worked on the book, when available.

In this edition, Mike travels to the East Coast to pay homage to the only drive-in theater in New Jersey then to the coolest drive-in in Baltimore.   Part One Part Two

The Delsea Drive-in is an example of determination.

Located in Vineland, a struggling South Jersey city, the Delsea had closed in 1987. It looked like it was going to be just another dead drive-in on a list of thousands, an ignominious end to a theater that opened in 1951.

Then came Doc DeLeonardis, a pediatrician who just couldn’t stand the idea of New Jersey, the state that gave birth to the drive-in industry 75 years ago, to be without one.

He reopened it.

I can imagine that his accountant must have freaked when Doc told him of his plans. After all, it’s not like drive-ins are a particularly growing business venture. But Doc had a dream and he was going to live it. In 2004, the Delsea reopened with Doc at the helm, the only drive-in in the state of New Jersey where the whole thing started.

And guess what? He’s done pretty well for himself.

At the end of June, we did a signing at the Delsea. Me, my wife, Barbara; Blair Smith, who drew the Starlight Drive-in, drug-hazy “Easy Rider” story for 1969 and Tom Schloendorn, the inker who handled finishing chores for Mike Williams art in two early stories featuring Adam, the eventual Starlight owner.

I invited Frank Halperin, a reporter with the Courtier Post of Camden, N.J., for the ride. We pulled up to the chain link fence and waited for someone to show up.

The Delsea is a bit of a drive from the Vineland downtown district, an old-time area trying hard to make a go of it. Sadly, the Wal-Mart being built just outside of town means times will become even tougher.

The drive-in is on a busy road that was once a major north-south thoroughfare before highways came in. It’s about 45 miles inland from the Joisey shore, so the locals tend to think at the ocean as their backyard pool.

The Delsea is an old-fashioned grass lot, broken up by stretches of sand. It’s quite unique among drive-ins. Like many theaters, the Delsea asks people not to bring in food. At the Delsea, that’s not much of a demand because they have a menu that would make a regular restaurant jealous, thanks to Doc’s health-conscious wife, Jude.

I mean, whoever heard of a drive-in snack bar that serves stir-fried asparagus for $4, made from scratch? Besides the usual burgers and hot dogs, (and a mean Philadelphia cheese steak) they have healthy stuff like veggie burgers, low-carb cucumber and chicken salad and eggplant parmesan. Very cool. Doc is what some call a “character.” With his long, gray hair tied up in a ponytail, he’s nobody’s Marcus Welby.

Doc got a little weird with Frank, wanting to know why the reporter did not clear his arrival with him. I pulled Doc aside and said that I had invited Frank and for God’s sake, be cool. Frank was here to write an article on the drive-in for one of the biggest newspapers in the state, he should be grateful. Doc grumbled, but calmed down a bit.

I suppose I should have cleared it with Doc, but honestly, I never thought it would be a problem. Who would turn his back on free publicity?

Anyway, it all worked out. Frank is such a damn nice guy that Doc couldn’t be mad at him for long.

Back to the signing, as I have found at most of them, most of the people who attend drive-ins are not big comic fans. But since they like drive-ins, they are inclined to check out a graphic novel about a favorite topic.

The $20 price tag is usually an issue, with some folks remembering when they bought comics for a dime.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, now let‘s hear how your mother threw them all away.

The big problem of the night was weather, which is very changeable in those parts. Around 4 p.m. there was a torrential thunderstorm that dumped so much water that roads were flooded.

Even though you can still watch a movie in the rain (it’s fog that’s the killer) it does dampen attendance.

But by 5 p.m. the sun was shining brightly again, even though storm clouds would show up and rumble ominously all night.

The rain did one thing, it made it really humid. We were set up inside the snack bar in case of rain. Blair Smith, who never stops working, was drawing pages for a new book he’s working on for a Philly area rock band. The local teen-age girls seemed enamored by Blair and hung around him, kind of the way young women hang around David Mack at comic conventions. Jealous? Me? Never.

I learned one very interesting fact about Blair that night - he is a descendent of Jesse James. How cool is that? The subject came up because I told him I’m currently pitching a new series called “The Bastard Son of Jesse James.” (Wish me luck.) I already have an artist attached to it, but I had to offer Blair something, him being related and all. So I said I would write him a three-page script.

I sent it to him a week later and Blair, being Blair, has already roughed it out and is working on the finished story. I like the idea of having a back-up story by a relative of Jesse James in the book.

Schloendorn brought his son, Jace, 7, and the lad was just overwhelmed by everything. It was his first drive-in experience and he loved it. He questioned everyone about everything, sharp kid.

Doc stopped over several times to see how we were doing and keep us hydrated.

Doc’s kids work at the snack-bar, part of a huge kitchen staff that really hustles. Doc runs a tight ship and expects a lot from his people, but they seem to love him. There is a real camaraderie among the workers, despite a constantly ringing phone.

The phone is hooked up to an answering machine that plays a message about the movies that are showing, along with time, admission fee and other information. But it rings and rings, very loudly. Since no one ever answers it, I wondered why they didn’t just turn the ringer off?

No one knew why. It might be a good idea for Doc to think about it.

We signed books and prints until the start of the first movie: Wall-E. (also playing was Get Smart, The Hulk and Kung Fu Panda.) We watched Wall-E, mainly because my wife teaches music to very young kids at an elementary school and needs to keep up on such things. At least that’s what she says.

It started to sprinkle toward the end and we took that as a good time to trundle out to our hotel. Being at the Delsea reminded me of the drive-ins of my youth around Philly.

It’s old and a little raggedy around the edges, but it’s the real thing.

Check out more info on the Delsea at: http://www.delseadrive-in.com/

ON TO BENGIE’S

BENGIE’S DRIVE-IN, BALTIMORE

Legend has it that when D. Edward Vogel took over running Bengie’s Drive-in in suburban Baltimore it was a lawless place. Employees said cops had to be called nightly because of one problem or another.

So when Vogel took over, D as he is called, he knew if the theater was going to work he would have to be even tougher than the toughs.

And D is tough.

His rules: like no vehicle lights; no running in the lot; no bare feet; no driving faster than 5 mph are serious. Real serious.

But hey, because he is so strict, Bengie’s is entering its 53rd year of operation and it is celebrated as a paradigm of how a drive-in should be run. That and the fact that it boasts the largest drive-in movie screen in the world!

More importantly, the place is always jammed.

During their occasional special dusk ‘til dawn shows, customers drive in from all over the East Coast to watch horror movies, Three Stooges shorts, cartoons (remember cartoons?) and authentic, old-time commercials like the dancing hot dogs.

Just so people don’t miss the nostalgia emphasis, D has a line of classic cars permanently lined up in the lot in silent tribute.

Bengie’s had done an amazing job advertising the signing with an article on their website. One carload of folks showed up just to buy the book and not stay for the movies, which presented a problem to D’s staff.

Our evening started early. We got there around 5 p.m. and pulled in the lot to set up our posters. Bad move. In seconds, we were approached by drive-in people who were concerned that we were trespassing.

It was a hot night, really hot. D put up a beach umbrella to shield us from the blazing sun, which was a big help.

The crowd filtered in, very orderly, and soon we were selling and signing books like crazy. D got on the PA system and told everyone we wre there and what the book was about, then handed the microphone to me. I resisted breaking into song, but invited folks to stop by.

Bengie’s really knows how to get people’s attention. For much of the night they were holding drawings for DVDs, t-shirts, posters and some very cool stuff. They were smart enough to do the drawing in front of my table so people had to look at the book while waiting to reach into a box and draw out their winning prize number.

At one point during the movie, Kung Fu Panda again, a thunderstorm rolled in. We moved inside, thankful for the cooling rain.

That kind of put a damper, so to speak, on the book sales. We stayed until intermission, but left before the start of the next flick.

D looked at the Starlight book and was taken aback by Tim Bate’s two-page tribute to John Wayne.

Starlight features stories about every genre of film, which was easy until I came to western. How do I write a Western story set in a modern day drive-in?

Artist Sean McArdle and I talked about it and one of us, probably him, came up with two pages: one page a marquee featuring the movies of The Duke, John Wayne. The other page would be cowboys on horseback tethered to drive-in speaker posts as John Wayne’s face appeared on the screen.

Okay, I’m not sure what it means either, but it got us our Western.

When D saw it, he broke into a smile. He said that exact scene occurred at his drive-in last summer when a local horse-riding club rented out the theater for a show.

“We had dozens of people on horseback at the posts, it looked just like the picture in the book,” he said. “Funny thing was we didn’t clean up too well so a few months later we had oat plants growing all over the lot.”

Dogs were all over the place. I love dogs at drive-ins, they are automatic ice breakers. Plus I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs or babies.

Bengie’s has the coolest collection of t-shirts of any drive-in I’ve ever seen. Check ‘em out at http://www.bengies.com/merchandise_main_page.php

I swapped D one of my special “I did it at the Starlight Drive-In t-shirts for one of his “Magic In The Sky” shirts.

http://www.bengies.com/Home.php

COMING: DETROIT, TOLEDO, MANSFIELD, OH. AND SAN DIEGO

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