Ever want to meet me in person and punch me in the face? Well, tonight you’ll have your chance.
Just kidding. But I will be out and about Friday evening at the fabulous Atwater in the Park brewery for what I’m calling a “High Five” party. It is a book-signing party for my first history tome, but I don’t even care if you buy the book. I just want to celebrate that it happened.
Let me warn you now: This is a hugely self-indulgent blog post. I’m going to blather on and on about my writing life. I hope you’ll indulge me a bit only because I hope to tell you more about the people in the book than the book itself.
This book is about finding out what happened back in 1950 when a Dearborn family decided to open a drive-in theater at the border of their hometown and Detroit. It’s about diving deeply into your community and learning all of the fascinating things that happened there before you were born. It’s about giving people credit for not only doing their job, but doing it in a way that impacts people in long-lasting ways.
A little background. In August, The History Press published “The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In: Cars, Candy and Canoodling in the Motor City.” It is a book about one drive-in theater. Yup, about 30,000 words on a building. Seems crazy, right? How can you write so much about a place where they show movies?
Let’s go back a little further. When I’m not writing this here blog, I do a lot of freelance writing. Last summer, I wrote a story for The Detroit News about the Honda drive-in preservation project that raised funds to convert the nation’s drive-in theaters from film to digital. These largely family-owned businesses were struggling to find the cash to convert – most digital projectors and related equipment cost about $70,000. That’s a sizable chuck of a theater’s revenue.
About the same time, I had taken on a “ghost-writing project” where I hoped the outcome would be positive. Not only would I learn how to write a book, I’d get to know a little more about my community. Well, that project went bust. I ended up having to quit – something I never do – and was feeling like a huge creep about it.
The morning that I quit that book project was the worst. I sent the email explaining the reasons I was quitting at about 9 a.m. For the next two hours, I dragged around, feeling lower than low. Mainly, I was mourning the loss of a life-long dream.
Since I was a geeky kid, I wanted to write something big – a book of my own. I got into journalism so I could learn to write a book, I told myself. Flash forward 20 years, and I was still writing articles. Finally, a friend shocked me into reality when she told me: “When are you going to grow up and start doing what you want to do?”
Around 11 a.m. that very morning – the same morning I quit and was beating myself up about giving up yet again on a dream – I got an email from The History Press. I had never heard of this publisher. But they wanted a book about the Ford-Wyoming, and they wanted to know if I’d write one.
Yes, yes, I would.
The book is about Charlie Shafer, the current owner of the Ford-Wyoming. He’s 93 and he’s a fabulous, smart man. He knows everything about Detroit, its politics and its potential. He’s owned the Ford Drive-In (its current name) for thirty years. He regailed me with great stories about working the crowds, putting the right films together to have blockbuster audiences and the struggles of running a drive-in as he saw Detroit declining.
The book also is about the Clark family. Clyde Clark Sr. and his three sons – James, Harold and Clyde Jr. – built the Ford-Wyoming on a vacant parcel next to their tool-and-die shop at the corners of Ford and Wyoming in Dearborn. They ran this beautiful ozoner for thirty years. Along with manager Boyd Beauchene, they brought drive-in magic to the Motor City.
These days, there are only eight drive-in theaters left in Michigan. There used to be about 120. The Ford-Wyoming is the only Metro Detroit drive-in around. During the summer, it is open seven nights a week. In the winter, it is open only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is a beautiful location – that corner spot brings people together in more ways than one. Sure, they’re all there to share a movie. But they also are meeting friends from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. They’re sharing popcorn with family. They’re chatting around the speaker poles as their kids run across the gravel-laden parking lots. It is like a community gathering spot that happens to show movies when it gets dark.
This past Saturday night, I visited the Ford-Wyoming with my family and friends. Diane Clark O’Brien, Harold’s daughter, came with her family as well. Together, we visited with Virgil and Dave, the two men who run the drive-in on a nightly basis. They showed us how the digital-projection system works and answered any questions we had about the day-to-day life of the Ford-Wyoming. It was a great moment for me, watching Diane tell them stories about her life at the drive-in with her dad. Virgil and Dave shared their stories as well, like how Dave met his wife there and that their son (who is taller than any of us now) spent his entire childhood at the Ford-Wyoming.
I could go on and on. But let’s just wrap up with two main messages:
–Come have a beer with me tonight. Please don’t punch me.
–Go see a movie at the Ford-Wyoming.
“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” —Philip Pullman