Under the Stars

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

If you’re over the age of 35, you probably have memories of drive-in movie theaters scattered around the Detroit metropolitan area.

Those drive-ins, which peaked in popularity in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, began disappearing in the 1980s when their property became more valuable for strip malls, restaurants, and other year-round businesses.

But the drive-in experience hasn’t completely disappeared. This summer, the Redford Theatre and Detroit Film Theatre hosted events that helped patrons enjoy cinema under the stars.

On June 13 and 14, as schools were letting out for the summer, the Redford hosted a Drive-In Movie Weekend that did a good job of replicating this outdoor experience inside a theater. It didn’t hurt that the Redford’s ceiling twinkles with star-like lights on a deep blue background.

On the bill that weekend were two science fiction thrillers from the 1950s—War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In between the movies were trailers for schlocky, campy B movies that drew much laughter from the crowd.

Also shown during the intermission were vintage advertisements for concession stands that included tempting, surreal images of popcorn, soft drinks, candy, and lots and lots of hot dogs. Those images were part of the countdowns to showtime that are one of my favorite memories of drive-ins (and which thankfully are preserved in all of their splendor on YouTube).

As part of the fun, the Redford added a hot dog stand to their concession offerings for the weekend. During the intermission, the inner lobby was filled with the delicious smell of hot dogs grilling as people chomped down on these tasty frankfurters.

DFT Goes Outdoors

This summer’s DFT programming also evoked memories of the drive-in era with outdoor showings in August of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the original Japanese Godzilla (1954) at three Huron-Clinton Metroparks (Kensington, Stoney Brook, and Willow). These screenings helped the DFT continue to show movies while its auditorium at the Detroit Institute of Arts undergoes renovations.

(These screenings were also part of several anniversary presentations this summer by the Detroit Movie Palaces. The Redford and Michigan Theater had 75th anniversary screenings of The Wizard of Oz, while both the DFT and Michigan hosted 60th anniversary showings of Godzilla and 50th birthday celebrations of A Hard Day’s Night.)

Ann Arbor News, September 5, 1964

Ann Arbor News, September 5, 1964

I caught up with the DFT’s outdoor programming on Saturday, August 16 at the Willow Metropark in New Boston for a showing of A Hard Day’s Night, starring the Beatles. I knew it was going to be a unique night when I had to stop my car for some deer crossing the road before I reached the screening area in the park.

Soon I was settled into a spot near some trees whose branches helped frame the screen, which was positioned in front of a wooded area that kept the night sky from competing with the glow of the moving picture.

Willow Metropark, August 16, 2014

Willow Metropark, August 16, 2014

Before the show, you could feel the stamp of the DFT brand on many things, in spite of the unique setting. At the entrance, a publicity table was filled with information about the DFT and DIA, along with the DFT program notes.

As patrons settled in with their chairs, blankets, and pillows, the movie screen rotated through the same variety of publicity slides that you see in the DFT auditorium. As usual, specially selected music accompanied these slides; on this evening, the soundtrack for a later Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine.

And just before the movie started, DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm spoke to the audience, providing the same kind of personable and detailed commentary that he has delivered for decades from the stage of the DFT auditorium. He said that the DFT hoped to screen outdoor movies again next summer.

Another unique experience of the evening was the fascinating sight of night bugs fluttering around in the light of the projector, without affecting the picture. And several times, jets from the nearby Detroit Metropolitan Airport roared closely overhead as they took off into the night.

As the evening progressed, I soaked in the feeling of summer, which lasts for only a few more weeks. And once again, the DFT was providing a quality movie in a quality atmosphere.

A Modern Drive-In

If you want the actual experience of watching a movie from a car, you still have options in the Detroit area.

The Ford Drive-In in Dearborn has been open for decades. I lived near that theater about 20 years ago, and I remember the classic drive-in experience of gravel crunching under the tires as you looked for an open speaker that you’d access by driving up on the small bump that would angle you upwards towards the screen.

Now I live near the Compuware Arena Drive-In Theatre in Plymouth. This theater uses the vast parking lot of a minor league hockey arena to show three sets of double features all summer long.

I make about one visit a year to the theater, for the sake of nostalgia, but also to enjoy the fun of this new kind of drive-in, which is creating pleasant memories for young moviegoers who barely know about the old days of drive-ins.

Compuware Drive-In Theatre, August 28, 2014 (driver's seat view)

Compuware Drive-In Theatre, August 28, 2014 (driver's seat view)

I usually go in late August, when the shows start just before 9 p.m. I don’t expect the same kind of quality movie that I get at the DFT, Michigan, or Redford, but usually I get something halfway entertaining.

Which is a good way to describe Guardians of the Galaxy, which to this middle-aged moviegoer was mostly sensory overload with its endless computer-generated imagery and its constant explosions of sound. I kept thinking back to earlier movies that used a lot of computerized special effects, like A.I. and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which the special effects enhanced the plot instead of replacing much of it.

But I tried to take Guardians of the Galaxy on its own terms, and it had some enjoyable moments. I liked how each of the guardians emerged as individuals, and there were some welcome moments of humor in what was often a very intense movie. It is certainly a mainstream movie of the 21st century, and the ending left no doubt that sequels will follow.

But no matter what was on the screen, it was still fun to feel the cool evening breeze flow through the car, as the sounds of crickets and other night-time insects added to the movie soundtrack.

I walked inside the arena a couple of times, where young hockey players practiced for their upcoming seasons. The contrast between the indoor and outdoor activities accented the changing of the seasons.

And a few times, I thought back to my earliest visits to the drive-in, crammed into a station wagon with my brothers and sisters, food messes everywhere. Watching the big screen illuminate the night. Falling asleep, to the drifting sounds of a crackling speaker. And those wonderful intermission advertisements…

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Copyright © 2014 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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