The Ford-Wyoming and Detroit’s Automotive Love Affair

Car culture is to Detroit what baseball is to America. Or, really, car culture is to Detroit what car culture is to all of America, but with some extra emphasis – it being the Motor City and the birthplace of the modern automobile and all.
 
Since the first Model Ts came sputtering off Henry Ford’s production line in 1914, metro Detroit has been synonymous with American car culture, and as more and more Americans could afford to buy their own automobiles, the automobile itself became a symbol of American life and freedom. American culture came to reflect that, with favorite pastimes shaping themselves around the newfound prominence of the automobile. By the 1950s, drive-in diners and drive-in movie theaters had become the primary outlets for socializing and entertainment, particularly among youngsters for whom the automobile offered some privacy for canoodling and whatnot.
 
During their heyday, there were 4,000 drive-in theatres throughout the country. Now only about 350 remain, including the Ford Drive-In (formerly the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In) in Dearborn, the last remaining drive-in in metro Detroit and one of only eight in the state of Michigan.
 
A new book by Detroit-area business reporter and former Detroit News and Oakland Press staffer Karen Dybis looks at the history of this iconic local institution, once the biggest drive-in theatre in the world. The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In: Cars, Candy & Canoodling in the Motor City covers the six-decade of history of the Ford-Wyoming, from its hard-won start in 1950 to being sold over a handshake during dinner at the Dearborn Country Club to its current status as the last remaining old-school drive-in in southeastern Michigan.
 
Dybis’s interest in the Ford-Wyoming was sparked when she wrote a piece for the Detroit News last August on Honda’s Project Drive-In, a fundraising campaign for four historic drive-ins to be converted to digital (as all cinemas were forced to convert in recent years).
 
“To convert costs $70,000-80,000,” Dybis explains. “Drive-in theatres were shutting down because they didn’t have the money for it. The Detroit News had me write about the campaign, so I called the Ford-Wyoming and talked to [current owner] Charlie Shafer on the phone for an area. He was hilarious! He’s extremely well-connected and knowledgeable about the area, and had all these crazy stories about running a drive-in.”
 
Shafer is only the second owner that the theatre has ever had. The Clark family opened the Ford-Wyoming in 1950 after a long battle with Mayor Orville Hubbard. By 1981, the youngest Clark brother and primary theatre operator Harold was having dinner with fellow theatre-owner Charlie Shafer who said to Clark, “I need a theatre in metro Detroit like yours.” Just like that, the Ford-Wyoming was sold on a handshake, and Shafer has been operating it ever since. He is still the face of the business, though Bill Clark is his silent partner, who also owns a building company in Wixom. Shafer lives in Bloomfield Hills and is now 95 years old.
 
Shafer’s father ran the Fox Theatre, a vaudeville movie theatre, during Detroit’s heyday, and the family went on to open several theatres throughout the metro Detroit suburbs. The Ford-Wyoming was the last theatre the Shafer family acquired and it is the last one that remains in Shafer’s possession. Even when the drive-in theatre business began to slow in the ’80s, Shafer has kept the business going and he still has no desire to sell it or retire.
 
“This is kind of his baby. He is as happy as can be,” Dybis says. “He used to go every single night just to check in and see if they needed anything.” He would also pick out all the movies for the double-headers and would even direct traffic when the theatre was still busy enough to need it.
 
Not long after her original story appeared in the Detroit News, Dybis, who had never considered herself much of a nonfiction reader or history buff, was contacted by a publishing company about writing a book on the Ford-Wyoming. “I always wanted to write a book,” she says. “That was a life goal. So I said okay, got back in touch with Charlie and got in touch with the children of the three brothers who opened the drive-in.”
 
She was able to speak with family members “of all different stripes” and also got a lot of fan stories from people with cherished memories of the theatre (and yes, some of those stories involve canoodling). She also spoke with a filmmaker who had produced a documentary on drive-ins, a film historian, and others who have contributed to the dialogue on the history of the drive-in theatre.
 
“[The film historian] said no other culture in the world does drive-ins like [Americans] do. He thinks it’s so crazy that we don’t mind sitting in our cars,” Dybis says. But the classic drive-in theatre has become a stand-alone symbol of American culture and is an active piece of American history. “People have this immense fondness for drive-ins. For some it’s where they lost their virginity or met their sweetheart for first time. It’s so American and so much a part of our culture. It was a post-WWII phenomenon and Detroit was one of the first cities to have one.”
 
The book goes beyond the history of the theatre and its owners to situate the phenomenon of the drive-in in its particular time and place in history, and how it reflects that of Detroit. “[It is a collection] of all these fantastic stories of people who had been touched by this drive-in,” Dybis says. “It’s a really nice history of the car culture of metro Detroit and how it led to the rise and demise of drive-ins.”
 
At one point the Ford-Wyoming had nine screens; it has since scaled back to five. The theatre was intentionally built in Dearborn, near but not in the city of Detroit. “They wanted that adjacency to Detroit, but after the riot people weren’t building theatres in the city,” Dybis explains. In many ways the history of the Ford-Wyoming is also the history of Detroit.
 
Drive-ins began to see their decline as theatre owners were offered more money for their land for development, the second generation was not interested in taking over the business, and people moved farther out into the suburbs. “It’s a story of what makes Michigan Michigan, told through the [lens] of our love of cars and transportation.”
 
But drive-ins haven’t completely lost their appeal, and it seems as people become more nostalgic for them there is an increased interest. Ironically, a major audience for the drive-in is third-shift autoworkers who can’t go to a conventional theatre, as well as musicians and service industry types. “So many people working odd shifts at the auto plants made the Ford-Wyoming what it is. There’s a natural fan base for drive-ins.”
 
She says that it is the nostalgia people have for drive-ins that will keep them alive. “There is a bit of love for this outdoor drive-in experience. I think people realize just how rare it is. They want their kids to experience it. It’s a combination of the romance of being outside and the coziness of being in your car and the communal aspect of [the experience]. It is completely an all-American movie-going experience to drive in and sit in your car.”
 
Of course, few drive-ins are as grand as the Ford-Wyoming with its huge tower screen. “That main tower is a unique atmosphere. There’s just a kind of magic to the place; you can just fall in love with it.”
 
For decades now metro Detroiters have fallen in love at the Ford-Wyoming. Now they fall in love with the Ford-Wyoming. Dybis’s book is a love letter to the theatre, to American car culture, and to Detroit in general.