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In these days of volatile gas prices and failing car companies, you'd think drive-in theaters would be out-of-date, obsolete, a thing of the past. After all, they hark back to a time when every American saw it as as a God-given right to drive an oversized Oldsmobile onto blacktop for everything from buying a burger to seeing a movie. There, in luxury, behind a million chrome dials and knobs, he — and this was mainly a guy thing — could rest assured he was living life to the fullest, having taken his castle with him.
Of course, we're not nearly so chauvinistic about car culture as we once were (Escalades and H3s notwithstanding). So it's interesting that instead of being a model of consumption, the drive-in has become something of a cheap, retro thrill. It means being able to bring your own food and drinks, dodging the ever-more-expensive concession counter. You can bring the baby, saving on a sitter. What's more, it allows you to go in a group or go it alone, to be able to tailor a communal experience to your individual needs, fogged away in an intimate make-out session or kicked back truck-style in a bed of blankets and pillows.
What's more, you don't have to, as one friend puts it, "deal with other people's bullshit" — the popcorn-throwers, the spoiler-blurters, the simpleton two rows back crying, "Oh, no, baby! Don't go in there!" To avoid loud groups, drive in with the windows rolled down and scout for places away from the revelry.
Of course, all that privacy is a potent enabler. From the moment your tires crunch to a stop on the gravel, you join a group of people free to bask in their respective victimless crimes. At what other kind of theater can you smoke a cigarette, crack open a beverage or mix up a tailgate cocktail? At the drive-in, every parking spot is truly its own kingdom.
And then there's the nostalgia factor. Though it's limited at new drive-ins, it's bedrock-thick at Dearborn's Ford-Wyoming, now in its sixth decade in business. Billed as the world's largest drive-in, the nine screens include the original 1951 concrete tower, with its simple but effective art deco flourishes. They still screen spot-flecked old reels with singing hot dogs and hamburgers in between double features, fading vestiges of old moviehouse days.
You can tune in the movie on low-power FM radio, or you can enjoy the charm of the tinny-sounding aluminum car speakers you can hang on your window. And they're practically museum pieces: The Ford-Wyoming uses speakers salvaged from such long-gone drive-ins as the Bel-Air, the Grand River and the Gratiot — the drive-in captured in a well-known Robert Frank photo in the mid-1950s.
When choosing a film to see, remember that, depending on the ambient light in the night sky, the glow can obscure the darkest scenes. Which means a moody horror joint like 28 Days Later is not the sort of movie you want to see (if you could) on a cloudy Detroit night, especially if the lights are on at the nearby car dealership (a distinctly slighter possibility these days). Stick with films with high-key lighting on the order of an old-line Hollywood musical for best results.
When equipping for a night at the drive-in, you might want comfortable kicks for the car, but bring sturdy walking shoes for any missions to the concession stand. A warm coat is a good idea if the night snaps unseasonably cold, and you might even take along a flashlight, as the blacktop at Dearborn's Ford-Wyoming can be uneven.
As for the thrilling economy of sneaking in, we don't recommend it. Most drive-ins are canny about sniffing out who's trying to dodge paying admission by stashing a companion or two in the trunk; a savvy drive-in staff will follow people who drive in alone. If you must, try having your driver ask the guy at the booth if he saw a blonde in a specific kind of car come in — just to throw them off the scent.
As for illicit activities, we recommend a policy of careful concealment: rolling up the windows when necessary, using can cozies, pre-mixing your beverages. (Be responsible!) And remember, there are often a few kids running around, so when it comes to getting steamy in your car, as one friend put it: "No ass cheeks visible!"
Michael Jackman's dad once delivered a child outside the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In. Send comments to email@example.com.