Every once in a while when we were kids Dad loaded us into the car and headed to the Grand River Drive-In for a night of popcorn, pop (rare treat!) and movies like The Parent Trap and The Nutty Professor.
It was a night off for Mom, who stayed home to enjoy a precious few hours of peace and quiet without five kids and numerous friends running in and out of the house.
I remember the thrill of anticipation as we pulled into the huge drive-in lot at twilight, with time to hang out at the playground beneath the big screen before settling into the car as darkness fell.
We kids may have worn our pajamas to the drive-in, or that may have been something other families did. I can’t imagine running to the popcorn stand in p.j.s. I do know that there were cartoon countdowns ’til showtime and reminders to buy refreshments. As if we needed prompting.
The movie’s sound came out of a metal speaker attached to a pole next to each vehicle. We’d strain to hear the scratchy audio and jostle to see the screen. We’d swat mosquitos and fight over the snacks. I remember one time being so absorbed in the movie that I reached for a handful of popcorn but instead stuck my hand in my brother’s cup of pop. I don’t think he noticed.
Did I mention the car-side speakers and scratchy audio?
Nostalgia for the drive-in has a way of blurring the fact that sitting in a car crowded with siblings on a hot summer night was not the best way to watch a movie. Then again, The Nutty Professor wasn’t the best movie.
Richard Hollingshead introduced the drive-in theater in New Jersey in 1933, and the popularity of seeing shows under the stars reached its peak in the 1950s and ’60s. By the 1980s most drive-ins had disappeared.
According to the website Water Winter Wonderland the East-Side, Michigan’s first drive-in, opened in Harper Woods in 1938 and closed in 1977; the Grand River Drive-In opened in 1949 and held on until 1988. A strip mall occupies that land.
The handful of traditional outdoor theaters remaining in Michigan includes the Capri Drive-In on U-S 12 in Coldwater, halfway between Detroit and Chicago near the Indiana border. Built in 1964 by John and Mary Magocs, the Capri is still family-owned and operated by their son Tom and his wife Sue.
I’ve wanted to experience the Capri, which has been written about in USA Today and the New York Times, and finally made it to Coldwater—but in the off-season.
Sue Magocs was nice enough to show me around, and that wave of nostalgia washed over me as I checked out the retro cinder block building that houses the projection room, spacious snack bar and spotless restrooms.
The Capri can accommodate about 900 vehicles between two huge screens that measure 150’x75′ and 80’x40′. With sound delivered via FM stereo radio frequencies the movie-watching experience has improved but the old-fashioned, family-friendly atmosphere remains.
It’s still a low-cost outing; the Capri shows double features on each of its screens for the admission price of $8 for ages 12 and up, $3 for ages 5-11 and free for kids under 5. Two shows for the price of one! Tuesday is “carload night” when $20 admits everyone in the vehicle. (Note: Cash only.)
About 50,000 folks find their way to the Capri each season. Even in the face of competition from super-sized theater complexes, on-demand movies at home and other amusements the Capri has managed to thrive because, says Sue, “It’s a whole evening of entertainment, an experience. That’s what’s always helped us. You’re not just going to the movies.”
“There’s just something special when the lights go on and people start coming in,” says Sue, clearly still enamored of the warm-weather routine. “The magic of the drive-in happens at sunset.”
As fun as it was to tour this piece of Americana by day, I need to return some evening to experience that magic. I’ll bring the bug dope but will leave the p.j.s at home.
For info on the last classic Michigan Drive-Ins:
Capri Drive-In Theater – Coldwater
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre – Honor
Ford Drive In – Dearborn
Getty Drive-In Theatre – Muskegon
Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre – Carsonville
US 23 Drive-In Theater – Flint
A newly-built, old-fashioned drive-in is due to open soon in Ionia; check it out: Danny Boy’s Drive-In
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