Dearborn drive-in endures, open year-round for families and film buffs
Jodi Noding / Special to The Detroit News
DEARBORN, MI -- Movies flickering under the stars, tykes in
pajamas on a car roof, a speaker dangling through the window as Rover
leaps around the back seat.
Wait a minute, what time of year is it?
leaves and winter snowfalls are no problem at the Ford-Wyoming
Drive-In, which bills itself as the largest drive-in theater in the
world. The Dearborn venue, with 3,000 parking spots, is one of those
rarest of rarities, a drive-in that stays open year-round.
Outlasting most of its peers, the
Ford-Wyoming in Dearborn continues to have solid business in Metro
Detroit. Up to 2,000 vehicles visit the nine screens on a busy weekend
night, owner Charles Shafer said. Five of the nine screens show films
"We can stay open in the winter. We've only closed three times in 26 years," Shafer said.
they stay open in the winter because people come. Plug-in heaters keep
cars warm during cold weather, and Shafer maintains the old-fashioned
speakers as well as offering radio sound for the movies.
enjoy the business," he said. That's what keeps Shafer, 87, up at 3
a.m., counting grosses and paying bills. His father was general manager
for Fox Theatre in Detroit. And Shafer himself started as an usher
before he began opening his own theaters and drive-ins throughout the
Screens kept adding up
Shafer bought the
Ford-Wyoming in 1981 with partner Bill Clark when it offered one
screen. Taking their cue from multicinemas, which were then exploding
on the scene, the partners added on, making it a five-screen drive-in.
"We bought more property and added more screens. Every year got better when we added screens," Shafer said.
the early '90s, the partners expanded again, this time leasing property
and building four more screens. The property where screens 6-9 sit is
up for sale by its owners, Shafer said-- which highlights one of the
economic reasons there aren't more drive-ins.
"The thing is,
you've got to go way out in the sticks to build a drive-in," Shafer
said. "Then 50 or 60 years later, you're surrounded by people and you
have the only available property over 20 acres."
Clark have sold other drive-ins around the state to companies such as
Ford Motor Co. and McDonald's once the property value outweighed movie
profits and the average $4-per-car concession revenue.
Ford-Wyoming benefits from the dearth of other theaters in its Ford
Road neighborhood. "We have no competition at all," he said.
Families are key to success
appeal remains strong for certain groups. The ability to bring pets is
a plus for people, as is the freedom to smoke. And handicapped patrons
like that they don't have to get out of the car, Shafer said.
manager Ed Szurek, who has worked at the Ford-Wyoming for 26 years,
said: "The secret of our continued success is families. The kids come
in their PJs. It's a relaxed environment. You aren't
shoulder-to-shoulder with someone."
Customer Judy Maiga of
Wyandotte agrees. She and her family of five visit the Ford-Wyoming two
to three times a year. Maiga appreciates that her daughters can have
the same experience she had as a girl, going to the now-closed Jolly
Roger Drive-In in Taylor.
"The kids really enjoy it," she said
of her three daughters, ages 12, 9 and 7. "It's an event when we go as
opposed to going to a regular show. We pop popcorn. It's a whole night.
"Plus, they can see two movies. Financially, that's a big draw,"
Maiga said. "My 12-year-old had her 10th birthday party there. It was
great, and it was cheap. We invited four or five of her friends and had
Szurek said the children's price of $2.50 and the
double features are a lure for families. And during the summer,
theaters 6-9 featured a special price of $3.99 for adults and free for
children under 12 before 9 p.m. that was extremely popular, he said.
Regular adult admission is $8.
He estimates 2007 will bring
better revenue than the past few years. What's helped, he said, is a
steady stream of big movies, like "Transformers" and "Spider-Man 3."
And because Ford-Wyoming has multiple screens, it is not locked into
showing one at a time, and can open up each movie during the first
weeks of showing, when the films take in the bulk of sales.
is a member of the United Drive In Theatres Owners Association, a
national group that works to promote the business. One of their biggest
challenges has been making sure drive-ins aren't left out during
Hollywood's planned transition from film to digital in the coming
years. New theaters opening already use the technology; drive-ins have
lobbied hard to ensure they get the same cutting-edge equipment.
association's work is paying off. After plummeting from 4,063 drive-ins
in the heyday of 1958 to around 450 in 1999, the business has begun to
stabilize, with new theaters and reopenings offsetting losses. In 2006,
there were almost 400 drive-ins with 650 screens nationwide.
"Every single member loves the drive-in business," Szurek said. "The determination in that group is unbelievable."
Jodi Noding is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
Last (outdoor) picture show
Drive-ins a relic of softer times
The Post and Courier
Cote (driver's seat) with wife Mikaela (back seat driver's side) and
friends Brandyon McMillian and Amanda McMillian sit in the open air of
a convertible while watching "Evan Almighty" on the second of two
screens at the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort, SC one of only three
left in the state.
Steve McLain can see God through the windshield and the Human Torch in his rearview mirror.
up in a 1991 Cadillac Sedan deVille, with a warm breeze blowing through
the windows, he puffs on a fat cigar and sips on a Coke, the
professional practitioner of a lost art.
He's not in heaven, but
somewhere he considers pretty close to it. McLain is watching "Evan
Almighty" on a billboard-size movie screen nestled among pine trees,
while "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" plays on another
screen across the lot. He is one of the regular devotees to this nearly
forgotten piece of Americana: the drive-in movie.
"You can't sit in Cadillac seats in any theater," he said.
Highway 21 Drive-In, just outside of town here, is the last big picture
show in these parts, the only place in the Lowcountry you can cruise
back to an era when the big screen really meant the Big Screen. Fifty
years ago, during their heyday, there were nearly 100 drive-ins in
Now, there are only three.
"I remember when
I was a kid and I'd go to the drive-in in Mount Pleasant," said McLain,
who now lives in Bluffton. "I think it's the neatest experience for
watching a movie."
It is nothing if not a trip down memory lane.
Arrive before sundown to get a good parking spot, and it all comes
rushing back in a wave of sweet nostalgia: kids playing in their
pajamas, lovers sneaking an errant smooch, popcorn buckets piled high
on the hood of a car.
The Post and Courier
patrons at the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort choose to use
traditional speakers for the movie, even though the option of tuning in
to a radio station is a newer way of hearing the movie soundtrack.
Speakers lined up in rows plays the Beach Boys, the Shirelles, the
Drifters — music that harkens back to the golden age, that idyllic time
that baby boomers long for. That's how long it's been: "Help Me,
Rhonda" and "Under the Boardwalk" were hit songs when the drive-in
movie was last a popular social gathering spot.
drive-in movies opened in the 1930s, but didn't really catch on until
after the war. By 1958 there were about 5,000 drive-ins around the
country. At one point there were 99 in South Carolina alone, according
to www.driveintheater.com, the industry's history Web site. [The UDITOA does
not recognize this website as a bonafide source for industry data.]
40 years later — after the multiplex, the VCR, the Internet — there
were only 800 drive-ins nationwide. And only a few of those were
Today, it is undoubtedly the tug of nostalgia that pulls
most people to the drive-in. But once inside, they find a world that
has only gotten better with age. Most gush about the prices of the
nightly double feature — $5 for adults, $1 for kids under 12 — as well
as the food, the atmosphere and the family environment.
mostly the food: The funnel cakes, the Sno-Cones, the cotton candy and,
of course, the giant buckets of buttered popcorn. Take a whiff of the
cooking oil and frying batter and all of the sudden the old jingle
"Let's All Go to the Lobby" begins to run through your head.
was those memories that drew David and Nedra Byrd of Summerville here.
On a Friday night they loaded up a few lawn chairs and their kids —
Jessica, 15, and Allison, 11 — for the hourlong drive. Waiting for the
movie to start, fending off the no-see-ums, the Byrds sit in the back
of their truck reliving their childhood.
"We did this as a
surprise for the kids," Nedra Byrd said. "We wanted to do something as
a family, and we wanted to show them how it was when we were kids."
On the Web
Highway 21 Drive In
A special multimedia report on the Highway 21 Drive in, Beaufort SC.
The Highway 21 Drive-In regularly pulls in people from Charleston,
Savannah — all over the Lowcountry. On a good Friday night, there might
be 300 cars parked before the two screens, the second added last year
as a nod to 21st Century economics. Most studios require theaters to
keep movies two weeks. To keep the people coming back, one of the
screens gets a new flick every Friday.
The only reason the
Lowcountry has a drive-in anymore is because of Bonnie Barth. She saw
the summer blockbuster flick "Independence Day" at the Highway 21
Drive-In more than a decade ago and fell in love all over again. When
the owners retired and shut down the drive-in, Barth and her husband,
Joe, had a novel idea: they would buy it.
"I said, 'But we don't know anything about it,' and Joe said, 'It'll be fun,' " Barth recalls.
clear that Barth pays particular attention to the concession stand. She
spends most of her evenings deep-frying funnel cakes and making
Sno-Cones under a tent outside the main snack bar. The stand is
virtually a restaurant, serving hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza
alongside the more traditional fare of popcorn and candy.
light fades from the sky, the reason for this emphasis on concessions
becomes clear. A commercial from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners
Association begins with romantic images of famous drive-ins of
yesteryear, big red letters stamped across the pictures telling you
they are "CLOSED."
These days, theaters pay the vast majority of
money they collect from ticket sales to rent first-run movies; the
snacks pay the bills. Please, the commercial urges, support the
drive-in by supporting the concession stand.
Most people do, and
many brag about the quality of the food. Some people, Barth said with a
measure of pride, come just for the funnel cakes and other fare. She
said it has helped to keep the Highway 21 Drive-In open. The drive-in
isn't in the black yet, but it's getting by, she said, and doing better
all the time.
It certainly seems so on a typical Friday night.
Kids run up and down the aisles between the cars, laughing and playing
as their parents watch. Whole families pack the line at the concession
stand, hoping for a last tub of popcorn or a citronella coil, which you
really need out here to keep the bugs away. Meanwhile,
twenty-somethings digging the retro scene cruise the lot in silk
pajamas like they're at the Playboy mansion. It's pretty clear that the
drive-in is back.
The Post and Courier
A young drive-in movie goer watches "Ratatouille" from the top of a car at the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beafort.
As dusk settles, the tailgating parties wind down. The anticipation
builds, and everyone gets comfortable and quiet, either out of respect
or because they are in awe of the evening sky. The show is about to
Counting down the minutes is Donald Seagraves, the Highway
21 Drive-in projectionist. He's been showing movies since he was 17,
and he's now nearly 50.
Seagraves stands between the two
projection rooms, one for each big screen, surveying the scene. The
Highway 21 Drive-In is just like the outdoor theaters of his youth,
perhaps even better. He's old enough to remember the sad decline of
drive-ins, when they could get only B-movies and became hang-outs for
Now the drive-in is family-oriented, right down to the
way the Barths avoid R-rated movies as much as they can. But everyone,
he notes, is having a good time.
"It's just a place for people to meet and talk and be outside," he says. "People miss it in their lives."
checks the sky, glances at his watch — 8:55. It's time. He makes his
way into the projection booth and, moments later, the night sky lights
up and images begin to dance across the screen as they did decades ago.
It's magic, all over again.
Operating S.C. drive-ins
HIGHWAY 21 Drive-In Theatre: U.S. Highway 21 North, Beaufort. 843-846-4500
Auto Drive-In: Highway 25 South, Greenwood. 864-229-5999
*Big Mo Drive-In Theatre: U.S. Highway 1, Monetta. 803-685-794
(*Reopened in 1999 after being closed for 15 years)
Source: www.driveintheater.com and the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This page last updated 5/20/10
Copyright © - United
Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, Inc.