There’s nothing more American than the drive-in. The warm red glow of car taillights fading into the distance, families on lawn chairs laughing, couples making out behind fogged up windows, the big glowing screen, the pungent aroma of marijuana… – wait, what? Weed? Here, at the drive-in? Cue the needle drop, please.
This isn’t Pleasantville, USA. This is the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, on the gritty, industrial east side of Dearborn, kitty-corner to Detroit. The year is 2013. The muscle cars and and teenagers in varsity jackets that must’ve packed the lot back when the drive-in first opened in 1951 are but a distant dream, extras from some forgotten scene in American Graffiti.
But that old magic, somehow, is still in the air, floating on the gentle breeze. Just close your eyes and you can feel it in the very fibers of your hair, those endless wonders of the night, the glamorous possibilities of Hollywood. Watching Tom Cruise kill some aliens from the comfort of your car, the old metal speaker hanging from your window crackling with each explosion… that’s the American dream, man.
And right off the bat, as you drive up to the ticket booth, a massive and somewhat dingy art deco concrete slab with red and blue accents and the name “FORD-WYOMING” spelled in neon sets the mood, the screen for Theatre 1 on the other side. Of course, $8.50 for admission to a double header doesn’t hurt matters, either. It’s like you have the same purchasing power American’s had in the ’50s, when a 6 pack of Coca-Cola cost about twice as much a gallon gas. Right on!
Then, too, there’s that slow cruise to the actual theatre – one of five – your headlights turned off, a trail of lights on the ground your only guide, the crunch of the pebbles under your wheels reverberating through the night. The perfect spot eyed down, you pull in next to one of the many pale yellow poles with speakers on either end, finagling with the steering wheel a until you’ve got the car situated how you want it.
Up on the screen, an old school cartoon in washed out colors urges you and the other patrons to visit the “refreshment center”, a bag of popcorn juggling popped kernels for your amusement. After all, there’s only 3 minutes to go before the show starts. If you don’t make the quick trip to the closest heat lamp emporium now, you might miss something good!
Naw, forget about it. It’s time, my friend, to relax, kick back the seat, and crack open a tall Genesee Ice. Take a deep breath and luxuriate in that invisible car exhaust and sweet summer air pumping in from the Ford River Rouge Complex and Zug Island. From outer space, the stretch factories to the south look like cancerous growth on the earth’s surface, hardened and black, the classic bedraggled Main Street America of Dearborn’s Michigan Avenue the only buffer protecting us from a fiery end in one of the many blast furnaces. Good thing all we can see is the movie screen, Tom Cruise wandering across a post-apocalyptic New York City to hip musician M83’s appropriately foreboding soundtrack.
The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In’s owner (sorry, he calls it The Ford Drive-In these days), Charlie Shafer, has run the drive-in since the beginning.He grew up in his dad’s movie theatres, and has a deep appreciation for the business that has kept the Ford Drive-In projectors busy through thick and thin. He gets the magic.
But Shafer is also in his 80s. When he’s gone, who’ll keep the place up? His latest business partner, Bill Clark, thinks he and his family are up to the task, but the drive-in barely survived the last economic downturn. As tastes change, it’s only gonna get tougher. Who’ll want to take a business chance on a drive-in?
If the Ford Drive-In ever closes, it’ll be yet another shining exemplar of our automotive heritage snuffed out unceremoniously. Pretty soon, all that’ll be left from the glory days are a handful of freeways and fast food drive-thrus. Later generations will wonder why we ever allowed any of it to happen, clueless.
Little will they know.