Posted by: Kath Usitalo | May 17, 2011

Time Travel: Tour 1990 Detroit In A 1959 Pink Cadillac

Advertising the 1990 promotional video; to view it on YouTube click where noted below

What a difference a couple of decades make.

Back in the 20th century I had an office in the Renaissance Center with a view of the Detroit River and my title was Vice President of Communications for the Metropolitan Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau. We were charged with concocting ways to showcase the area to the folks who decide where to hold their meetings and tradeshows, and to those who sent busloads of senior citizens on vacation, and to the occasional individual tourist.

This art was on postcards and posters promoting the video

We worked with an agency on the advertising and some of the print materials, but the staff of the communications department created a lot of the publications and audio-visual programs in-house, with help from outside contractors as needed (we did not have a printing press in our RenCen office).

One of those projects was a promotional film, “Detroit…It’s An American Classic.” It’s an 11-minute tour of the area in a 1959 pink Cadillac driven by comedian and actor Thom Sharp.

Thom is originally from Detroit and has made a great career doing commercials, though you’d never know it because he owns only one set of clothes: khaki pants and a blue blazer.

The idea for this little movie seems quaint now, but at the time it was revolutionary in the convention and visitor bureau industry. Promotional videos usually consisted of pretty scenery with pretty music and pretty people doing things like strolling along a pretty, boutique-lined street while a voice from above said pretty words about Any City, USA.

We had to break through the video clutter and present Detroit in a memorable way. I remember coming up with the idea of EveryMan Thom Sharp as tour guide behind the wheel of the automotive icon, and presenting the concept to my boss, Bill McLaughlin. He loved it, but the idea was so radical at the time that we had to get the approval of the MDCVB board to proceed.

Anyway, we had a blast making the film. I wrote the script with Thom Sharp in mind—khaki pants, blue blazer and all— because I knew he’d improvise and add fun stuff along the way. He didn’t disappoint.

Allison Kuhnlein of the MDCVB Communications Department staff did a brilliant job handling the very involved production details—there are dozens of scenes throughout the area, indoors and out, in four seasons—and she worked with a great crew of professionals including local composer Joe LoDuca, who wrote the music. Several other MDCVB staffers were involved in the production and are in some of the scenes.

We held the “World Premiere” at the bureau’s annual meeting in May 1990, and the crowd went wild. They laughed, they cried—well, they sat through the entire 11-minutes, plus the credits. Could we get an audience to pay attention for that long today?

“Detroit…It’s An American Classic” won about 20 awards and was shown at a couple of film festivals, including one, if I recall correctly, in Yugoslavia. That’s how long ago it was.

One of the late, great, Boblo boats

I recently dusted off the movie to have it transferred from videotape to DVD, and could not believe the number of changes in the city since 1990. Grand Prix race? Downtown trolley? Boblo boats?

A new event since this film was made that would have been a fabulous scene: the Woodward Dream Cruise, an annual rolling classic vehicle show that attracts some 30,000 antique and muscle cars, street rods to Royal Oak and other suburbs just north of Detroit along Woodward Avenue. This year’s 17th annual event is Saturday, August 20, but cars start rolling into town for planned and informal events a good week ahead of that.

Just thought I’d share this look at Detroit way back then.

Click here to see  Detroit…It’s An American Classic on YouTube.

But I suggest you go to the bathroom first because there’s no intermission in this looooong 11 minute show.

Thom Sharp and the classic Caddy at Hart Plaza, Detroit

Visitor Info Clicks:

Detroit Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau

Pure Michigan



  1. OMG. I never knew. That’s awesome, Kath!

    • That’s because it was before you were born! 😉

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