The drive-in theater has had a rich history throughout the country. The first commercial drive-in was initially tried out in 1915 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and by 1932 the idea was officially patented by Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., in Camden, New Jersey. The drive-in that most of the older generations remember best was perfected by 1941, when RCA manufactured and installed the portable sound radio mounted inside every attending car.
It would be seven additional years before Downriver received their first drive-in theater, which would be the Michigan in 1948, at the corner of Dix-Toledo and Eureka Roads, where the present-day Wal-Mart stands in Southgate. The idea was extremely novel at the time, as it was one of only twelve operating in the state in 1948. Following this were the Ecorse, the Fort, the Holiday and the Jolly Roger, which were all in operation by the early 1950s.
By 1972, Michigan had reached its peak of drive-in movie houses, with a total of 137 state-wide. However, this number began declining rapidly in the early 1980s. Chief among reasons cited were the advent of the home video cassette recorder (in BetaMax or VHS format), in addition to continued technological improvements for the more traditional indoor movie houses.
Convenience and comfort were becoming more important to the moviegoer, who may have considered the drive-in theaters as nothing more than a passing fad. The total number would dip to 82 by the mid-1980s, including the Michigan's closure in 1984.
By 1990, with the closure of the Fort and the Jolly Roger, the drive-in movie theater Downriver was but a memory. The state's total would dip under twenty locations by 1991, and has not seen that level since. From that time forward, with a few notable exceptions (the failed Pontiac Silverdome project as well as a one-summer-only attraction at the old Wyandotte Theater site), the only local alternative has been the Ford-Wyoming 8, near Detroit.
In February 2016, talk began about a revitalization of the drive-in concept in Brownstown, near the southeast corner of Sibley and Telegraph Roads, an area which is largely undeveloped. Recent history has shown that former "fads" tend to make comebacks after fading from the scene for several years. In other words, to paraphrase, the old becomes new again. Debate over the use of this site became more heated in March 2016, but seemed to die out by April and, as of this writing, no further mention has been noted.
Proponents have included long-time fans of the genre, as well as the younger generation seeking to relive what the older generation enjoyed. They argue the proposed Brownstown area is not near any immediate residential districts, and is near one major thoroughfare, with additional easy access provided by I-75. They also mentioned it would provide a needed economic boost to the area in-season, and become a tourist attraction in its own right, all in a relatively safe area.
Opponents counter by claiming the drive-in was past its peak back in the 1970s, and cannot be revived. They have mentioned the complete overhaul of the indoor movie theater, which now includes advanced stereo sound, as well as recliners and advances in IMAX digital technology, as important points that the drive-in movie house cannot duplicate due to logistics (fearing first-time customers may be disappointed). They also claimed there are in fact residential areas nearby, that nearby parcels are not zoned properly, and that the Telegraph & Sibley interchange is woefully inadequate for the proposed increased traffic.
But... Could a revival of the dormant - yet still iconic - drive-in theater indeed make a comeback, and could Downriver take the lead role in making this a reality? Many new ideas we see these days come from old ideas enjoyed generations before, and this may be no exception. It may be a way to be able to escape the technology for one night, and return to something a little simpler.
Stay tuned for more.