There was once a simpler time, when folks could pile into the family car armed with pillows, blankets, snacks, and treats and take in the latest feature movies under the stars — with all the comforts of home. In metro Detroit, that time is now.
For 69 years, Dearborn's Ford-Wyoming Drive-in has had a massive presence, laying claim to being the "largest drive-in in the world" with its five screens and 1,700-car capacity. Visually, the theater is striking — if charmingly unkempt — with its massive original Streamline Moderne screens towering over the drive-in's entrance, making it a beloved landmark of the city's landscape. The theater offers double features for $10.99 per person — seven days a week, all-year long (providing plug-in heaters during the bitter winter months), rain or shine (though they enforce a strict "no refunds" policy). It's no wonder that in the age of streaming, smartphones, and virtual reality that the humble Ford-Wyoming Drive-in is still a destination.
CherylAnn Johnson knows every inch of the historic Ford-Wyoming Drive-in as if she had built it herself — not just the lay of the land, but the many quirks of the vintage vestige. The 62-year-old is quick to point out the many exits where non-paying patrons attempt to sneak in — just last year the Ford-Wyoming crew stopped more than 560 people from catching a free double-feature — and she can point out which screens attract those looking to do the deed.
"There's a lot of sex that goes on in here, let me tell you," she says. "Well, heck, right between there, that gets pretty dark. They like [screens] 4 and 5 because they can back into the trees."
Johnson was hired as a secretary by Ford-Wyoming's owner Charles Shafer. Initially, she took the job for something to do on weekends, but a few years into the role she found herself taking care of both the business and the boss, as Shafer is now 97 years old.
She says that owning the theater has kept his mind going. "I truly believe Charles would be just fading away," she says. "He makes a lot of decisions."
And he does. He signs off on payroll each week, chooses each of the theater's 10 films, and thoughtfully pairs them based on what he knows will do the best, and reports the theater's profits every Monday. Shafer has been at the helm of the Ford-Wyoming's operations since 1981, when he purchased the theater in cooperation with partner Bill Clark, who Shafer refers to as a "young man" at the age of 60.
"In 38 years, we've never had an argument," Shafer says of his partnership with Clark.
Having grown up in the theater business (his father served as the general manager of the Fox Theatre when it first opened in 1927), Shafer went on to own a handful of theaters throughout metro Detroit. He recalls giving up senior prom to work at the State-Wayne theater alongside his brother and mother, who managed the candy counter. Shafer says back then, the theater might bring in $100 a night at just 10 cents a ticket.
"I've had drive-ins ever sine 1949," he says. "I had six of them at one time and sold them to different people. We sold one to Ford Motor Company. We sold one to McDonald's, to Farmer Jack. We got rid of them, but I kept the one so I'd have something to do."
So, why keep the Ford-Wyoming?
"It was the logical one to keep because it was in a commercial zone and it's the only one in town," he says. "Plus, it was the best one. It is the best one."
The Ford had just one theater when Shafer bought it, the one housed in its iconic sign-facade. He added eight screens shortly after purchasing it and then, shortly after that, was forced to downsize to just five after the rise of home theater systems and the loss of 300,000 Detroit residents.
Though Shafer was raised in the theater business, managing his own was not always in the cards. Both Johnson and Shafer jokingly refer to his time serving in World War II as his three-year-long vacation from working at his father's theater. It comes as no surprise that Shafer cites Battlegrounds (1949) and Saving Private Ryan as his favorite films.
"It did a lot of business, it was a good movie, and it was realistic," he says of the award-winning Saving Private Ryan. "When I saw it, I felt like I could live it because that's the way it was."
Not unlike a harrowing movie plot, Shafer reflects on three separate occasions in which he narrowly escaped death at Normandy: Once, while trapped in a foxhole and a fellow private by the name of Flickenger was shot in the head immediately after trading places with Shafer. The next near-death experience occurred while under siege by German 88's perched in trees after an American soldier lit a fire.
"They fired from the trees," Shafer recalls. "I put my head up and said, let's go, let's get out of here, but they were all dead. I didn't get a scratch."
Finally, Shafer survived a case of trench foot, which nearly cost him his big toe, and at one point, threatened the use of his entire leg.
"I've been spared a few times," he says. "I asked the priest, I asked the rabbi. They said either somebody's praying for you or you're not wanted up there."
Of all the characters to grace the Ford-Wyoming's many screens over its longstanding reign as metro Detroit's last surviving drive-in, it is the theater's loyal staff that is perhaps the most colorful and authentic.
Guth, whose favorite movie is A Walk to Remember, and her husband, David, who favors the Expendables franchise, met at the Ford-Wyoming's concession stand when both were teenagers. Liz recalls the 1.5-liter of Pepsi and the bag of M&Ms that led to their initial meeting.
David is the assistant manager while Liz holds down the fort as the head cashier. They've been together 26 years and have three sons, all of whom work at the theater. As David jokes, they were all "made at the theater, too."
"I never intended for it to be a career; it just happened that way," David says of his position. "It's kept me out of a lot of trouble. I was born and raised in southwest Detroit, and most of my friends would hang out and party on the weekend and shit, and they would end up in jail or dead. I couldn't go party because I had to work. So [it] just kind of worked out as a small blessing. Plus, the owners are pretty cool. They take care of you."
Each employee jumps at the opportunity to share their tales from the frontlines. Together, they've seen hordes of hearses line up for a screening of Underworld, road warriors turned up for Mad Max: Fury Road, people giving blow-jobs as they approach the ticket window, children hiding in car trunks, infidelity avenged by scorned lovers, stacks of people hidden under blankets, a monkey, and, on a separate occasion, a 25-foot-long anaconda snake.
"I've only seen a windshield kicked in one time, but he deserved it," Johnson says. "We don't care what you do in your car. We don't care about the pizza or the beer. We care about the people hiding under the seats."
"We care about blankets that breathe," Guth adds.
At one point, America was home to more than 5,000 drive-in theaters. Now, just under 400 remain throughout the country, and Shafer doesn't foresee some sudden drive-in resurgence, even though a nostalgia for all things retro is somewhat in vogue, even if only as a an every-once-in-a-while curiosity. As far as he can tell, the youth aren't showing up like they used to.
"You used to get high school kids because it was the only place they could neck," he says. "They used to call drive-ins 'passion pits.' Some of my people, they would put a flashlight in the car. I told him don't do that, somebody is going gonna whack you. I said, what they do in their car — that's up to them. But what they do out of their car, that's what we pay attention to."
While Johnson says that the Ford-Wyoming fails to bring in the numbers it used to at its peak, both she and Shafer recognize that the theater is surviving and providing a much-needed service to the community. Regardless of numbers, Shafer trusts himself and his staff to keep the tradition alive for generations of movie lovers for years to come.
"I've been doing it for 75 years, so I know what I'm doing," he says. "Plus, it gives me something to do."
The Ford-Wyoming Drive-in is located at 10400 Ford Rd., Dearborn; 313-846-6910; forddrivein.com. Movies are $10.99 for two films.
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