Yesterday was the 79th anniversary of the invention of the drive-in movie theatre. This is a small and unimportant anniversary compared to the fact that June 6 is also the anniversary of D-Day (I spent much of my day thinking about those startlingly heroic men; my grandfather is a WWII vet), but I cannot shoot D-Day (and probably would not have wanted to even if a woman had been allowed near the scenes of battle); I can, and do, however, photograph old drive-in theatres when I find them.
Of course, many of the remaining drive-in theatres look like Oklahoma’s 66 West Twin here. Technological and cultural changes haven’t been kind to the drive-in movie and its fans, have they?
It seems a little odd, really; the drive-in was created in part so that people could enjoy a movie in a more casual, relaxed setting than the downtown theatre. Our culture has indeed become more casual and relaxed—in the 40s and 50s, people wore their Sunday best when they went out to “see the show”, as my Grandma Sally always said. But the multiplex arose and captured our fancy, to say nothing of cable television offering movies on-demand or devices like Roku. Even so, if you want to GO see a movie but not fuss over it, it’s hard to beat the drive-in—especially if you have kids. I remember being dressed in my PJs to go see a drive-in movie more than once! Somehow, though, despite the bang for the family’s buck—drive-ins usually had a playground on-site for the crumb-crunchers—the venues fell out of favour.
Perhaps even more dangerously for the survival of the drive-in, though, the value of the real estate drive-ins sat upon became increasingly valuable. Drive-ins such as the Gratiot Drive-In, where I remember seeing movies at as just a tyke, were far too close to growing cities like Detroit, Saint Clair Shores, and Roseville to survive.
This grand 1948 drive in was built with no expense spared, and had a cascading waterfall on the back side of the screen facing Gratiot. The water fell into a tub at the foot of the tower—perfect for youngsters to play in on hot summer nights. Of course, pranksters couldn’t resist having a little fun, too—one Detroit resident remembers someone putting bubbles into the water. Can you imagine?
By the time I was visiting the Gratiot, the waterfall had long been stopped—Dad told me he thinks they stopped running it some time during the 60s. Of course, that beautiful, neon-bedecked Gratiot tower and Art Deco lettering remained the backdrop for decades of cruising up and down Gratiot. Sadly, in 1984, the drive-in was shut down and razed—razed, in fact, at the same time the Tigers were winning the World Series. Continue reading