It’s cold at the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theatre. The first shockingly dry-crisp days of autumn in the Midwest were overdue this year, trailing an already belated Indian summer. While the arrival of cool weather in Dearborn, Michigan, was inevitable, most of us have not yet adjusted to the sudden snap. Virgil, the manager in charge of the theatre, is standing high on a ladder, repairing the roof of the streamlined ticket booth. He waves a gloved hand and climbs down. We are both bundled up against the cold in all manner of hunter green, plaid, and wool.
Drive-in theatres like the one I’m standing in peaked in popularity during the post-WWII era. In the late 1950s there were 4,000 throughout the United States. Today, approximately 350 remain, and the Ford-Wyoming is the last example in southeast Michigan. The first patent for a drive-in theater was awarded to Richard M. Hollingshead in 1933. He worked out the details in his New Jersey driveway, by putting a projector on the hood of his car and nailing a sheet onto a tree for a screen. To simulate bad weather, he hooked up his lawn sprinkler. The family stereo came out of the house for an impromptu sound system. Hollingshead sat in his car, to test drive the show. He liked what he saw.
Virgil ushers me toward the corrugated metal opening through which vehicles enter the theatre. Once through, I’m in a wide expanse punctuated by randomly-leaning speaker posts, my eyes stinging from the wind gusting uninterrupted across the empty space. Most patrons choose to tune into their movie’s sound via their car FM radio, but strangely, when the theatre owners tried to decommission the ranks of poles with their perched and weathered speakers, there was something akin to a mutiny: whether deployed in the car or not, the grey speakers had become an essential part of the drive-in landscape.
The Ford-Wyoming drive-in was built by Charlie Schafer, opening for business in May 1950. He and his family grew a veritable movie house empire in the Metro-Detroit area under the umbrella of Wayne Amusements, but the Ford-Wyoming is the only evidence of the legacy that remains. When it was first built, there was only one screen—the backside of the immense Streamline Moderne structure that sits at the front of the property. One screen with accommodation for 750 cars grew to nine screens and a 3,000-car capacity, and the theatre began to make the claim of being “the largest drive-in in the world.” Today the theatre has downsized to five screens, showing double-features from dusk until dawn. As of 2013, at 92 years of age, Shafer remains an active manager, working from home, disinclined to retire.
Right now, the emptiness of the Ford Wyoming—no cars, blank screens, dead silence—is amplified by our presence, two figures buffeted by the wind. I look down and see a discarded pine tree car deodorizer lying in the sandy gravel. Virgil and I are headed toward the one place that drive-in patrons never get to go – the projection booth. Like most theatres, the Ford-Wyoming is converting their projectors to digital, and this is the reason I am here. The previous morning, I had received a call with a certain sense of urgency. The last of the 35mm machinery was headed for the dumpster, and I made an appointment to take a look to see if there were any items that might be added to the museum’s collection. We climb steep industrial iron stairs, up to the booth, and I wonder how the projectionists don’t trip down them in the dark carrying flashlights and film cans. Virgil tells me that he used to get the occasional flustered phone call from late-night projectionists: “I dropped the film reel down the stairs and it unraveled.”
“All this stuff is just going to get scrapped in the dumpster. Anything you see here… it’s up for the taking. The boss just wants it gone,” Virgil tells me. He pauses and asks: “Have you ever worked in film?” “A little, when I was in college,” I tell him. He nods and walks over to the shoulder high stack of table-sized film platters, where a few reels of forgotten 35mm film are wound around the circular cores. These mechanisms hold up to four hours of footage, making the projectionist’s life easier with fewer changeovers of reels. “We have some old intermission commercials wound on here that are ours.” “What’s on them?” “Oh, you know… Dancing hotdogs and popcorn, that kind of stuff. They’re pretty scratched up. We’ve been using the same ones out here for decades. I think we’ve only changed it over once.” This is very exciting. I tell him, “If you’re willing to part with one of those reels, I’d argue to the death that it has a home in our collections.”
Intermission films belong to a film category known as “snipes,” collections of generic promotional material used to advertise theater services. Perhaps the most famous of these films is the Dave Fleisher animated Let’s All Go to the Lobby, produced in 1957 by Chicago’s interstitial trailer company, Filmack Studios. A “clock shell” is a basic countdown reel sold to theatre owners, which creative projectionists could use to make a custom animated clock unique to their theatre. By tape-splicing together sections from the generic clock shell with blackout film, music interludes, generic food advertisements, policies, and short cartoons (all of which again, pointed towards the snack bar), a mix-and-match intermission film was created.
The film reel that Virgil is about to give to me is one such clock shell, beginning with the Hungry Martian, and followed by a unique version of Refreshment Time. The reel was produced by the animation department at the National Screen Service, a company that began in 1920 as a movie trailer production outfit, and in 1940 became the monopoly for poster distribution. The NSS also made intermission films, but suffered competition from companies like Filmack and Pike Studios, who specialized in the genre. The animation on the two snipes here is rumored to be by Jay Ward, animator of Rocky & Bullwinkle and designer of the Cap’n Crunch logo.
The concession stands and snack bars of drive-in theatres provided ready-made food that could be gathered quickly and returned to the car before the next feature began. Roadside America author John Magolies tells us this was a time when: “Watching and eating became, and still are, ritualistically and irrevocably intertwined.” Onscreen, the drive to sell snack items and drinks to patrons was decidedly transparent. Animated anthropomorphic dancing, trick-wrangling food things, psychedelic abstractions of wild shapes and colors, and other oddities have continued to be a nostalgic oddity. The Ford-Wyoming remains a site where dancing hotdogs stay limber.
While Virgil searches for an empty reel to feed the intermission film onto, we talk a little more about his life at the theatre. He has worked for Shafer since 1976, and used to manage the Ford-Wyoming 6-9 Theatre. When those screens were demolished in 2010, he relocated across the street to the 1-5 Theatre. Virgil started working as a projectionist in 1986 because “there was no one else wanted to do it.” When asked about the bizarre schedule related to working at an all-night movie theatre, he explained that he arrives at 8pm, and ends his shift at 3am. After a short rest, he returns at 7am to test equipment and do building maintenance until the early afternoon. Apparently, he doesn’t get much sleep. The Ford-Wyoming has a history of dedicated employees, and Berean is one of them.
Passing the reel to me, Virgil seems eager to get back to work. Before I go, he asks if I’m good with computers. “Good enough to get what I need to done,” I joke. He strides over to the new digital projector and swipes his finger around on the touch-screen. It glows awake with cold and even LED light, a docket of possibilities for film arrangements appear on the screen like entries on a recipe card. The screen acts as a digital slot system to swipe in and orchestrate trailers, advertisements and messages. I look at the text and scan it for hints of familiarity. I can’t help but wonder if drive-in theatres still project the “Anti-Love Bug” and “No Necking” messages for teenagers acting out their part in the archetype of the “passion pit.” Tonight, this projector will show a double-feature of horror films. Behind me, there are two more projectors, pointing out through windows, towards two more screens. I realize I’m standing in a film house Panopticon, next to a dusty brown La-Z Boy recliner that commands the space from the center.
I look up to see Virgil waving something in his hand that looks like an external computer hard-drive. “So you just take this thing, it sucks it up into the slot, extracts the files, and away it goes! They told me I could make everything work from a laptop… I could just stay at home if I felt like it!” Looking at the files arranged on the touch screen, I wander to thoughts about the demise of 35mm film stock. Film enthusiasts who did not grow up with digital foresaw this harbinger when Kodak ceased production of 35mm slide film. Struggling to resist giving in to the comforting hum of those sleep-inducing machines was the bane of many college level art survey courses, my own included. And sitting at the back of a movie theatre, you could enjoy the physicality of the sounds: the whir of the film flying through the projector, the metallic rhythmic clacking when the sprockets let the end leader fly. The reasons for converting to digital are many, and I’m sure Virgil would agree. But at the risk of sounding like a Luddite: the dust floating through the blinding arc lamp of a true film projector just settles differently.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.