Aug. 13: Ford Drive In Theatre, Dearborn MI

It’s Day 225 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving from the outer Detroit suburbs to the inner, it took only a half hour to get from Plymouth MI to the venerable Ford Drive In Theatre in Dearborn MI.

Karen Dybis wrote the book on the Ford. In fact, that’s the name of the 2014 book – The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In: Cars, Candy & Canoodling in the Motor City. Shortly after World War II, brothers James, Clyde and Harold Clark bought a vacant parcel to build the Ford-Wyoming. It opened for business in May 1950 with one screen, a glorious Streamline Moderne tower typical of drive-ins of the time.That tower is still there today. There was room for about 750 cars.

The Clarks ran the Ford-Wyoming for over 30 years before selling it to Charlie Shafer in 1981. Shafer was a big believer in multiple screens. He added two more within two years. By 1984, he had added a fourth screen, and manager Ed Szurek told the Detroit Free Press he wished he had room for five more. That wish would come true soon enough.

Screen number five was squeezed in before the 1988 season. Three years later, the drive-in expanded by taking over a plot of land two blocks north and setting up screens 6-8. The ninth and final screen was added before the 1995 season. At that point, all those viewing areas added up to a 3,000-car capacity, and the theatre began to make the claim of being “the largest drive-in in the world.”

In early 2010, the second parcel was closed and those four screens demolished. The drive-in was renamed the Ford, but its layout matches its 1988 five-screen configuration, and as of Dybis’s book, Shafer is still the owner.

Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford, has a great blog post about a 2013 visit to the Ford Drive-In and its manager that you really should read. It’s a great verbal picture of a venerable institution with new digital projection.

The video of the day is a bit of a prank. It was uploaded in 2010, and it’s just over two minutes of the old Ford-Wyoming marquee with its moving lights. There are also two fine videos of the place from Outdoor Moovies; they are really old (1995 and 2007) and low-res but great time capsules.

Here I was in the middle of the metro area, so it was only appropriate to choose Detroit as my movie of the night. It was a hard movie to watch, but I doubt that I’ll run into it too often in the weeks to come.

Miles Today / Total:  23 / 27124 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Detroit / 139

Nearby Restaurant: Ford’s Garage is such a natural fit for Dearborn that it’s hard to believe that most of the restaurants in this small chain are in Florida. There are Model T cars suspended from the ceiling here. I had the signature burger, including barbecue sauce, cheddar and bacon, with fries and a beer.

Where I Virtually Stayed: I was back to my mid-level favorite, the Hampton Inn of Dearborn. It’s close to The Henry Ford (see below), full of friendly people, and has all the standard Hampton elements that make me feel a certain continuity. There were cookies when I checked in, a room with all the standard amenities, and the solid Hampton breakfast in the morning.

Only in Dearborn: The Henry Ford is a museum of American innovation, an old-time village (that happens to have Thomas Edison’s lab), a factory tour, and the home of the Saturday morning show Innovation Nation, hosted by Mo Rocca. With all the car memorabilia around, it’s a great place to visit for any drive-in theater fan.

Next stop: Starlite Drive-In Theatre, Grand Bend ON.

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