Mike Sangiacomo's Drive-In Diary, 4

Tales of the Starlight Drive-In

Tales of the Starlight Drive-In
Tales of the Starlight Drive-In
Mike SanGiacomo and the occasional Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In artist toured the drive-in theaters of the United States over the summer, signing the book and making friends.

Previous columns dealt with signings in Cleveland; Strasburg, Oh; Vineland, N.J. and Baltimore, Md.

Today, as the season’s first snow falls and the drive-in seasons long closed we wrap the series up with some thoughts about some of the drive-ins we hit.

Since it is one of the few drive-ins north of the Mason-Dixon line that remains open all year, we’ll start with one of the more unusual drive-ins, the Ford Wyoming Drive-in in Dearborn, Mich.

Join us and please turn off your headlights.

Drive-In Diary, 1

Drive-In Diary, 2

Drive-In Diary, 3


The Ford-Wyoming was not exactly what we expected.

The address was listed as Dearborn, so I figured it was in a nice suburb. Nope. It was Dearborn-very-close-to-Detroit, nestled in the most industrialized area I’ve ever seen.

The theater is actually a collection of nine screens spread out among two semi-separate theaters. Depending on whether you enter from Ford Road or Wyoming Road, you enter one of the two theaters. They call themselves the largest drive-in theater in the world and I believe it.

All are set against the backdrop of gigantic oil storage tanks all over the place.

The view is totally surreal. There are giant screens in all directions, punctuated by these humongous tanks. The drive-in surface is crushed white stone. They still have the old-fashioned car speakers, though, like most drive-ins, play the sound on specific FM stations.

It reminded me of the later days of my mythical Starlight Drive-In, when the theater was hemmed in on all sides by commercial ventures.

There were a bunch of movies playing, including the one I watched Hellboy 2. Also playing were: Hulk; Hancock; The Zohan; Wall-E; Journey to the Center of the Earth; Get Smart and Iron Man.

Whew, quite a marathon.

It’s very possible to spend all weekend at the drive-in and not sit through the same movie twice, which seems to be its appeal.

The box office closes at 3:45 a.m., the last movies end just an hour or so before dawn, making this the latest drive-in I’ve ever heard of.

Some drive-ins, like Bengies in Baltimore, will run occasional dusk-to-dawn shows a few times a year. The Ford-Wyoming does it all the time.

But, who wants to see a movie at 3:45 a.m.?

“Honey, wake up, I have a great idea. Let’s catch the early morning show at the drive-in.”

Turns out there is a very logical reason for it, and an obvious one, factory workers on different shifts. When the mills and the assembly lines are running, people work all kinds of odd hours, so a 3:45 a.m. showing of Iron Man may be the perfect thing to unwind after work.

The drive-in does really well, drawing mostly from the inner city of Detroit. People started showing up very early, hours before dark.

Of course, you would expect a drive-in to do well in Detroit, the home of the automobile.

Children cavorted on the playgrounds set up in front of the giant screens while their families set up lawn chairs, bean bags, and all sorts of portable furniture.

These folks arrive here, pay their $8 admission fee, and they aren’t going anywhere. They really get their money’s worth. They offer a bargain admission fee of $3.99 for adults and kids free at three of the theaters.

These guys are serious about their drive-ins. The FW is open all year round, seven days a week, and boasts 3,000 parking spaces. They usually fill 2/3 of those spaces on the weekend.

For those of you not familiar with the weather patterns in Michigan, it gets freaking cold and snowy in the winter. But the owners say they rarely close, they just plow the lots and run the movie.

You gotta love those hard-ass Motown folks, they ain’t about to let a little snow slow them down. Owner Charles Shafer said he has only closed for weather three times in the past 26 years he’s owned the place.

Now, as far as selling copies of Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In went, things were less than ideal.

Unlike many drive-ins, the FW allows people to bring in their own food. And they did. They brought in pizzas, buckets of chicken, barrels of ribs and cases of Coke. They tended to stay in their own cars, munching away and digging the flicks.

I was surprised that there was not as much interaction among the patrons as in most drive-ins. In other drive-ins there is a lot of camaraderie, people walking around visiting each other and yakking with strangers, like camp or a Pete Seeger concert.

But at the Ford Wyoming, each car is a self-contained island, the folks happily eating and watching the movie.

That meant that they did not wander down to the snack bar, where I was set up. I was really surprised at how few people came to the snack bar during the night. Thank Odin they had to use the rest rooms or I might have died from loneliness.

It’s a shame, because it was a very nice snack bar. Since there were no lines, I went a couple of times sampling the hot dogs, burgers and, of course, popcorn.

I asked one of the workers why they allowed people to bring in their own food. I said many of the drive-ins charge an extra five bucks for people who bring in their own food and search cars coming in for illegal food.

He turned to his buddy behind the counter and said, “Hey, what do you think would happen if we charged people for bringing in food or searched their cars?”

“They’d shoot us,” the other guy said, not smiling. “Search the cars? This is Detroit!”

I got the picture.

I did have some nice conversations with folks. A family of folks stopped in the drive-in as part of their mission to visit as many drive-ins in the country as they can over the summer. Very enthusiastic group.

One guy really puzzled me.

He asked about the book and I launched into my patented spiel: it’s a series of 32 stories set in a drive-in theater that takes place over a 53-year period… I’ve said it so often I can recite it in my sleep.

He thumbed through the book, examining the pics.

Now, I’m usually ready with a retort when prospective purchasers balk.

“I don’t read comics,” gets a “Well, this is not really a comic, it’s a graphic novel. The stories are much more sophisticated than the comics you remember reading as a kid.”

Or: “I only read what my kids can enjoy,” which gets a “The stories are PG or PG-13. There’s only one that might be a little too racy for the kiddies and I’ll show that to you.”

But I was not prepared for this guy who looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t read anything. I don’t read books, newspapers or magazines. I just watch television.”

I was speechless, I just nodded my head.

There was not much I could say about that except that it was kind of sad. I didn’t say that, just thought it.

We packed up when it started to drizzle and watched Hellboy 2. I was amazed at the number of cars jammed into every theater.

Whenever anyone wonders how drive-ins are doing, I’ll tell them about the Ford-Wyoming and its acres and acres of white-stoned, gravel lots and giant screens.

They’re doing very well, thanks for asking.



There were many more drive-in experiences to write about, but sadly, the column has run its course much like many of the drive-ins themselves.

So here’s a brief look at a few of the others.


What a great little place. Unlike most drive-ins, the Sunset is virtually hidden on a back road outside of Mansfield in Ontario.

I wanted to sign here in honor of artist Alfred Cleveland, a man serving life in prison at Mansfield for murder. Alfred could not be there to sign, obviously, but his wife, Roberta, was.

I’m kind of a hard-ass journalist, so I am the last one to believe an inmate’s claim of innocence. But I know a skilled artist when I see one, so I hired Al to draw the Starlight story related to the film Shawshank Redemption.

It was perfect, since Shawshank was filmed at Mansfield Prison, where Al is serving his time. All that plays into the story.

Eventually, I looked into Al’s case and was surprised at what I found: the only witness to the crime told me he lied on the stand and that Al had nothing to do with murder of a prostitute. Al has more in common with the hero of Shawshank Redemption that I dreamed.

Click here for my newspaper story on the surprise revelation.

But back to the Sunset.

It’s one of two drive-ins in the Mansfield area, which once had nine drive-ins in the 1960’s. Nine!

The manager was so cool that he allowed people to come in, get their book signed, and leave if they didn’t want to pay for the movie. Only a few theaters were that courteous.

If I were going to film a movie version of Starlight, the Sunset may be a perfect location for the early days. It’s a grass and gravel lot surrounded by lush trees and roads with little traffic. You can still hear the tree frogs at night and spot deer nibbling on the underbrush.

It remains one of my fondest memories of the tour.


The other drive-in theater owners are going to hate me for this, but Sundance is by far the nicest I’ve ever seen.

The white stone lot is so clean you could eat off it. In fact, many people picnicked on it before the movie.

It was also the first time my name was up in lights, plastered on the marquee right under the movie, The Incredible Hulk again. Unfortunately, my name was misspelled, but the owner took care of it when I pointed it out.

I had such a great time, I returned later in the year, making it and the Aut-O-Rama in Cleveland the only places I visited twice.

The second time I was at the Sundance they had an antique car show, which was just brilliant. I sold a copy of Starlight to a guy who had a car exactly like the one on the cover of the book.

Like most drive-ins I’ve been to, the food is amazing. Real made-from-scratch pizza and burgers and a whole menu of great food at reasonable prices.

I had one of the strangest exchanges at the Sundance.

I was selling “I DID IT AT THE STARLIGHT DRIVE-IN” t-shirts pretty briskly when an older teenage girl came over and held one up to body. Not trying to be coarse, but this young lady had not missed many meals. So I was kind of surprised when she asked if I had it in small.

To my credit, I did not ask if it was a gift for a little sister. I simply said the extra large she held was the last I had.

Then I made a mistake.

“It looks like it will fit you fine,” I said, noticing my wife turn pale next to me. Uh-oh.

The girl, who had to weigh in at 250 pounds, threw the shirt down.

“I take a small,” she said. “Maybe you would sell more shirts if you had a decent supply.”

My wife rolled her eyes and patiently explained to me that women need their illusions. She suggested I let her handle such tricky situations next time.

And I have.


The Southwest is the perfect place to open a drive-in because we all know it never rains in Southern California.

I took a night off from the ridiculously overcrowded San Diego Comic-Con and set up at the South Bay, which is just minutes south of the city, off the major N-S freeway, I-5.

Just like the Sunset in Mansfield, the owner set up a special entrance for people who wanted to get their book signed and not stay for the show. Very accommodating of him.

It didn’t rain that night, but it sure was foggy, which cut down on the number of customers. I suspect the comic convention being in town didn’t help either.

The owner also owns the refurbished (and mighty fancy) Mission Tiki Drive-in in Los Angeles, which I will visit next summer if I get to the San Diego con. South Bay is a discreet drive-in, very rustic. It’s hard to imagine it’s that close to San Diego.

Ah well, I didn’t get to talk about all the drive-ins we visited, but we’re at an end.

I hope the tales of the drive-ins brought back some memories, and, more importantly, encouraged some of you to visit your local drive-in.

Trust me, they are cooler than you think.

Mike San Giacomo

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