If there’s something that’s almost inextricably tied to car culture, it’s the drive-in movie theatre. Detroit, being an epicenter of that, had some of the most amazing ones. Today, it’s the Ford-Wyoming in Dearborn that still stands.
Having just finished this book by Karen Dybis (you may have seen her byline before with the Detroit News or DetroitUnspun), instead of going through some sort of in-depth review, we asked if she’d share a sample chapter of her creation “Ford Wyoming Drive-in: Cars, Candy & Canoodling In The Motor City” and let the work speak for itself.
It’s a neat look back into a different time, everything from the Mayor of Dearborn at the time, Orville Hubbard, resisting the development at every turn to the ups and downs that mirrored our region and changing times and tastes. So sit back and enjoy this sample chapter of Detroit history that Karen has graciously shared with the Daily Detroit family, and if you’d like to pick it up for yourself, links are at the bottom.
Chapter 10: “My Favorite Place On Earth”
The Ford-Wyoming serves as a meeting place for all of Metro Detroit. For families, it is a giant living room that offers kids a chance to play, watch a movie and then snooze comfortably in their car seats. For teens, the drive-in was their first coffee house, a place where they could meet without being accused of loitering. For young lovers, it offered privacy to share a movie, touch hands in the popcorn box and, perhaps, neck in the backseat.
Granted, much more than necking happens at the Ford-Wyoming. As Shafer says, you can do pretty much anything you want at a drive-in as long as you don’t bother anyone.
People hold immense fondness for this Dearborn institution. Authors sing its praises in their books. Photographers of all stripes have images of it within their portfolios. Historians and architects revere its iconic main tower, marveling at its mix of Art Moderne and Art Deco style. Preservationists relish that one of the remaining Midwestern drive-ins has been kept so lovingly intact by its two owners. Stop any random person on the street, and chances are they’ll have a story about their time at this particular drive-in. You’ll hear wistful tales of their youth, romantic stories about their dating histories, fond recollections about their childhood visits. And every story is told with this breathless awe as they recount the sights, sounds and smells of a night at the drive-in theater.
“I remember the first time I took my best friend John to the Ford-Wyoming. After we parked the car and made a walk to the concession stand, I won’t forget his words: ‘This is what I imagine heaven must be like,’” said Jason Millward, a former Detroit resident who has been going to the Ford-Wyoming since he was four years old.
Other countries struggle to understand America’s love for the drive-in theater, said filmmaker and film historian Gary Rhodes, who teaches classes on the drive-in and others as a professor. “Where else but America would you go somewhere to just sit there? The functional purpose of a car is to drive it down the road. The purpose here is to drive and sit in it. It’s such a strange idea to people in other countries. Of course, I herald it as an amazing thing,” Rhodes said.
The love for drive-ins even goes as far as recreating the sound, Rhodes noted. “There are even some films that I’ve seen released on DVD that have an alternative audio track that mimics a drive-in theater’s speaker sound. They try to recreate that bad, mono, fuzzy sound. It’s incredible,” Rhodes laughed.
Michigan’s harsh winters also make its residents crave the outdoors and outdoor entertainment when the weather is warmer, said Johny Thomas, co-owner of the US 23 Drive In Theater in Flint Township. Thomas, 30, and his partners took over the theater in 2009 after the death of longtime owner and founder Lou Warrington.
“It’s the freedom,” Thomas said. “In Michigan, you have to live as much as you can outside when it’s warm here. Nothing against indoor theaters, but why would you want to be inside in the summer? … And there’s nothing like a drive-in theater to take your mind off of everything that’s going on in the world. You can just enjoy the right, hang with your kids, talk to your neighbors with the stars in the background.”
Author Sean Madigan Hoen included the Ford-Wyoming in several scenes of his 2014 book, “Songs Only You Know: A Memoir.” The book, which received favorable reviews, is about his life as a young musician trying to hold his family together in late-1990s Detroit area. The Ford-Wyoming appears as a refuge for the main characters. The former Dearborn resident now calls Brooklyn home, but he said the drive-in looms large in his memories.
“It’s truly atmospheric; you can sense the seediness of downtown-bound Michigan Avenue to the southeast, and the Rouge Steel factories, and the abandoned storefront, and a once-thriving, industrial city in which little capitalist glory remains,” Hoen said. “Drive-ins remind us of an era now passed, of car culture and hotdogs and first kisses, a time when humans had to leave the house to see film, any film, and what better way than to stare up at the giant actors as the moon shines down?”
So what makes the Ford-Wyoming great? It’s all about its fans. They’re the ones that would ride in on bicycles, hit the swings and sit on the benches outside of the concession stand. They’re the ones in the station wagon packed with kids and cousins. They’re the ones who would watch the film from the back of their grandma’s convertible or scream at “Terminator 3” in a Delta ’88.
For Chris Heine, the Ford-Wyoming has always fascinated him because of its ornamentation and drama against a twilight sky. Heine spent more than a year creating his version of the Ford-Wyoming for the 2014 Modernism Exposition poster on behalf of the Detroit Area Art Deco society. Heine does planning and architecture for The Smith Group inside Detroit’s Guardian Building. “It’s especially iconic when you’re driving up to it at night. It’s the colors, the lights. That’s what I wanted to emphasize” in the poster, Heine said. “It has a kind of a magic to it when you’re pulling up to see a movie. It’s not exotic per se, but it’s not something you see all of the time so it grabs you. It’s timeless because it’s from a previous era but it still shows the modern movies.”
Todd Storrs is a “car guy” – he is an automotive car modeler for General Motors Corp. and restores classic vehicles as homage to both his own love of cars but to also have something to drive on his regular visits to the Ford-Wyoming. His ride of choice most nights is a 1929 Model A hot rod.
“I always get there early, get set up and then get some eats,” Storrs said. “There’s something very unique about that drive-in. It hasn’t changed – You can go back to your old neighborhood, your old school and it’s all changed. It’s been torn down or it’s not the same anymore. But the drive-in – it hasn’t changed. There’s that buzz in the air. There are the kids on roof. People are there with their lawn chairs. It’s exactly how I remember it.”
It’s the mix that makes the Ford-Wyoming. It’s the families who need an inexpensive night out. It’s the hipsters who like the rust and peeling paint. It’s the teens who still need a place to go out on a date. It’s the tried-and-true fan who wants the drive-in to stay, no matter what the cost. “When I go there, I always go to the snack bar and buy too much. I’ll buy more popcorn than I can eat. Because if I buy more, they can afford to stay open another season. If I don’t do that, then the next time I want to go, it won’t be there,” Storrs said.