A Look at Metro Detroit’s Last Drive-In Theater

Once abundant in metro Detroit, drive-in theaters faded away by the 1990s. The lone survivor has gone high-tech for a unique cinematic experience.
Dearborn’s Ford-Wyoming drive-in theater first opened in 1950. Today, it’s one of a small handful left in Michigan. In 1957, there were 3,700 drive-in theaters nationwide. // Photograph courtesy of Ford-Wyoming.

In my first job at age 16, I assumed the exalted position of usher at a drive-in theater in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. One important duty was directing traffic at the box office on busy evenings. Another assignment found me patrolling the back of the lot, catching sneak-ins as they emerged from car trunks and making them buy tickets.

It was a great summer in 1972 with unlimited free popcorn and smutty movies like Night Call Nurses, produced by Detroit native Roger Corman.

Drive-ins originated during the Great Depression after the discovery that otherwise-impoverished families still spent money on movies.

Metro Detroit’s first drive-ins were the East Side (1938) in Harper Woods and the West Side (1940) in Oak Park, both operated by General Cinema Corp. of Massachusetts. A key development in those years was RCA’s in-car speakers, which brought the soundtrack into the car, replacing speakers on fixed poles. Some drive-ins even provided in-car heaters for chilly evenings. By 1957, there were 3,700 drive-in theaters nationwide.

West Side added to the formula in 1943 by installing a merry-go-round on its playground to occupy the kids before showtime and during intermission.

By accommodating 1,800 cars, the Bel-Air, built in 1950 at 8600 E. Eight Mile Road, represented the supersizing trend. The theater also had a large-scale playground and a miniature train ride.

Theodore Rogvoy, the prolific Detroit-area architect, designed several theaters in the streamline moderne style. The Gratiot, a 1948 example from Associated Theatres Inc., featured a monumental screen tower whose street-facing facade was a three-stage water cascade.

The wing walls beside the screen had portholes, which were also integrated into surfaces of the multilane box office plaza. Hosting 1,000 cars, the theater cost $375,000 to build on 22 acres and utilized $50,000 worth of projection equipment.

Chain owners like Nicholas George had drive-ins as well as conventional movie houses. George’s 1,800-capacity Galaxy drive-in rose from a site along Dequindre Road in Madison Heights (near Hazel Park Raceway) in 1963. It featured an all-steel screen tower and wing walls.

he Fort George drive-in, located in Southgate, was a popular destination for moviegoers in metro Detroit. Today, it’s the site of a Meijer store. // Photograph courtesy of Nick Thomas.

Nick Thomas, co-owner of Expand Marketing Group of West Bloomfield, is a grandson of Nicholas George and grew up working in the theaters. After his grandfather’s death in the early 1970s, the family continued their operation. Thomas says his favorite was the Fort George in Southgate but he “spent a lot of time at the Michigan” 2 miles away. He remembers doing maintenance in enclosed screen towers and being dive-bombed by birds nesting inside.

The family sold their indoor theaters to AMC in the 1980s, and the former site of the Fort George drive-in now hosts a Meijer store. “But we still own some of the drive-in properties to this day,” Thomas says, noting that the structures have been taken down for safety and liability reasons.

By the early ’70s, cinematic fare had changed from the former innocence of movies like Beach Blanket Bingo to triple features — “Held Over for a Second Big Week!” — of Corman’s “women in cages” flicks.

“We didn’t play any of that because most of our locations were in communities,” Thomas says.

The Nicholas George screens continued to show first-run films, yet the narrow scope of material contributed to economic pressures, squeezing exhibitors who operated on low margins and would have preferred more frequent marquee changes.

“The areas in which these things were located were out in the sticks,” says Gary Ritzenthaler, the Oakland County software engineer whose avocational blog, Water Winter Wonderland, extensively documents amusements statewide — drive-ins included. Ritzenthaler continues: “As suburban sprawl developed, land became very valuable.”

Opening in 1955, the Troy drive-in welcomed 1,200 cars at East Maple Road and Stephenson Highway, but it closed in 1984 and was demolished for commercial development.

Local authorities sometimes applied moral pressure as well. A contributor to Ritzenthaler’s blog recalls the East Side introducing soft porn with Corman’s formula of frontal nudity from the belly button up and full-body from the rear. The mayor of Harper Woods paid a denunciatory visit and insinuated the theater was noncompliant with building and fire codes.

“Drive-ins are rapidly becoming part of our nostalgic past,” Sumner Redstone told Newsweek in 1982. Redstone was then a major exhibitor whose National Amusements Inc. operated theaters in metro Detroit. “I foresee their extinction by the end of the decade.”

He moved assets to Hollywood and became a powerful force in film and media. A mass die-off occurred, but it wasn’t extinction. A few drive-ins hung on, making the expensive switch to digital projectors. Ritzenthaler counts nine drive-in theaters still going in Michigan, including the Ford-Wyoming in Dearborn. Admission is $28 per car for any of the four screens — and no switching! Recent top attractions were Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.

Besides the bright F-Max screen introduced last year in one of the four theaters, the Ford-Wyoming boasts Wi-Fi streaming and FM radio broadcasts to channel the audio through a car’s own sound system. This audio delivery ends another old tradition — namely, it’s no longer possible to forget the in-car speaker at evening’s end, pull away, and rip it from the post.

This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.