Dearborn’s Beloved Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theatre Earns National Recognition

    Few things make you think about summertime fun as much as a drive-in movie. And we’re lucky here in Michigan – our state has eight awesome “ozoners” as well as two additional sites that allow us to watch movies under the stars.

    My personal favorite is the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theatre in Dearborn. That’s its original name; these days, it goes by the Ford Drive-In. Recently, USA Today recognized this legendary theater in an article about the “10 Best Drive-Ins Theaters” in the nation. Its description in part read:

    Open sign - kenny“Dearborn, Mich.: Said to be the largest drive-in in the world, the 5-screen Ford Drive-In has a 3,000-car capacity and is atypically open year-round. Also unusual is the theater’s location in Detroit’s metro-area suburb of Dearborn, instead of 20 miles outside the city like most drive-ins. On some nights, visitors can even witness some bonus entertainment in the form of meteor showers, which occasionally light up the area.”

    I recently wrote a book about the Ford-Wyoming, and it will be released Aug. 26. Here is a preview of some of the information you’ll find in this fine little history book, published by The History Press in South Carolina. It was a labor of love – and there’s a lot to love about the Ford-Wyoming.

    This is an excerpt from Chapter Four, which I called “A Night at the Drive-In.” Hope you enjoy!

    Karpov speakers“The Ford-Wyoming’s opening night was marred slightly by the rain that fell on May 19, 1950. After all, it is hard to see a drive-in movie in the rain. But the crowds didn’t seem to mind; they easily filled the parking lot.

    It was a sign of things to come – cars full of families, young lovers and teenagers would line the theater’s driveway in the years that followed.

    The drive-in celebrated its opening with jubilation. A long, hard fight against Mayor Orville Hubbard and his pocketed officials had been intense. The Clark family’s joy at finally seeing those first cars roll in was palatable. In one of its earliest advertisements, the Ford-Wyoming welcomes patrons with seemingly endless enthusiasm: “Now Open! Closest to You! At your doorstep! Newest! Most Modern! Most Centrally Located! The latest RCA equipment throughout!”

    box officeThe first movies were a mix of family-friendly pictures, popular comedies and rough-and-tumble cowboy classics. “Road to Rio” left, “Desperadoes” replaced it. “My Friend Irma” featured a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon for the kids. Abbott & Costello got them laughing with “Pardon My Sarong” and a Popeye short. Fans packed in for Rita Hayworth in “Cover Girl” and Victor Mature in “Red, Hot and Blue.”

    The Clark family went out of their way in these early years and throughout their tenure at the Ford-Wyoming to open the facility up for non-profit groups and charitable organizations. They would host shows for groups ranging from the Dearborn Torch Fund to the Kiwanis Club, helping them raise money or celebrate events. One such fundraiser for the Kiwanis got attention from Billboard magazine, which reported on the event as a “precedent for outdoor theaters.” The Kiwanis had its members serve as the ushers and ticket takers while the theater provided cashiers for the well-attended fund raiser for National Kids’ Week.

    1990 photoGetting the theater up and running – along with taking care of their growing families – occupied James, Clyde and Harold Clark. Harold, the youngest, would end up taking the drive-in on as his personal interest, although all three still held positions and responsibilities at Dearborn Tool & Die.

    Having Harold at the helm also would be a natural fit because of his theatrical nature, his family recalled. He enjoyed dancing, and he met his wife Nathalie at a community dance at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, whose second-floor dance floor made the live-music venue on Grand River one of the hottest spots in town. Harold also was the family singer, even entering amateur contests and making a few recordings to show off his fine voice. His daughter, Diane Clark O’Brien, recalled him singing continuously when she was a child.

    O’Brien, who was born in 1953, said the daily life of running the drive-in was truly a family affair. Brothers Doug and Steven were born in 1958 and 1962, respectively. All three kids worked at the Ford-Wyoming, doing everything from selling popcorn to cleaning the bathrooms to working the driveway so the cars made it into the rows in an orderly fashion. Those jobs stepped up during the summer months. For example, Doug remembers being paid $1 an hour to refinish the hundreds of speaker poles with Rustoleum paint.

    Food and restrooms“That’s where I learned to drive a car. It’s where I met my first girlfriend,” Steven Clark recalled. “I grew up there.”

    O’Brien said her father would drop her off at school in the morning and then head to the Ford-Wyoming, where he would go over the previous night’s paperwork in the theater’s wood-paneled office. Harold Clark would tend to the financial matters of the facility, working with the secretary (likely Grace or Dorothy) in her nearby office. This is where Clark Enterprises, the company that owned the theater, operated day to day.

    For the most part, Harold was the Ford-Wyoming’s nervous system. He understood the pulse of the audience. What did they want to see? How could he match two different films to make them a popular crowd pleaser? Steven Clark recalled how much his father loved recording the list of movies that the theater would show, giving it a flair and sophistication because of how much he enjoyed the task.

    The crowds enjoyed life at the drive-in as well. James A. “Jamie” Clark recalled how the Ford-Wyoming’s proximity to Henry Ford’s Rouge plant made for great shows during the show.

    Refreshments“As a special treat, there was often the experience of observing the Fords’ blast furnace off in the distance as we watched the movie on the big screen,” Jamie said. “The sky would light up and we could hear the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ around us as we watched the movie.”

    Another time, Harold was able to get the local army to bring in a Sherman World War II tank and park it next to the concession stand, Jamie Clark recalled.

    “I remember Harold saying it was difficult putting the gravel back in the parking lot in the areas where the tank would make it turns. It was a publicity stunt that was successful, and people loved it,” Jamie Clark said. “I also remember standing alongside the tank and admiring its size and power.”

    Another highlight was the celebrity sightings. Movie and television stars often did promotional tours at that time, attending screenings of their films and doing meet-and-greets with fans. Diane O’Brien recalled seeing Herman’s Hermits at the Ford-Wyoming, doing publicity for their MGM Movies, such as “When the Boys Meet the Girls” (1965) and “Hold On!” (1966). Another of her favorites was Dwayne Hickman, who portrayed the teenage heartthrob on the CBS television show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”

    IntermissionDoug Clark remembers the time Jerry Lee Lewis came through. Harold Clark, who tended to be a bit conservative, didn’t enjoy that visit as much as the others, his son recalled.

    “Jerry Lewis came in a motor home and stayed for maybe 10 minutes. He seemed like he was half in the bag,” Doug Clark laughed. “He stood on the projection booth and my dad never liked him after that. He felt (Lewis) had an attitude.”

    Another time, Harold Clark managed to get his hands on one of the hottest tickets in Detroit: The Beatles at Olympia Stadium. He advertised he would be giving away a set of Beatles tickets in the drive-in’s popcorn. Clark held back four seats for his family to go see the show in September 1964, but they ended up staying for only two songs because his mother wanted to get away from the chaos and screaming girls, Doug Clark recalled.”