It’s widely recognized that the first drive-in theater was Hollingshead’s drive-in, which opened in New Jersey on June 6, 1933. It offered to view for up to 400 vehicles and a 40 by 50-foot screen. The owner advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The facility only operated for three years, but the concept caught on in other states during that time. There are still about a dozen Michigan drive-in theaters in operation in the state.
Drive-In Theaters in Michigan’s Upper Thumb
The drive-in’s peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States. During its height in popularity, Michigan had about 130 drive-ins. Huron County has two drive-ins, the Blue Sky between Caseville and Pinnebog and the M-53 Drive-In near Bad Axe.
Intermission – 10 Minutes Between Movies
Caseville Blue Sky Theater
Blue Sky operated from 1950 – 1977. Surrounded by farmland, it offered summer nighttime movies for 300 cars. Faced with a decline in attendance, the drive-in showed “blue films” in the 1970s. Remains of this theater were evident until about 2010, when landowners removed the last of the speaker stands and cement footings. All that remains is a small pile of rubble east of Gott’s Corners on Kinde Road. Soon that will be gone too.
Bad Axe Drive-In Hung on Until the 1980s
M-53 opened in 1953 and ran until 1988. I recall bringing a bunch of friends from college at Michigan State to the Drive-In. Only to meet the same bunch friends of we hung within East Lansing. The movie ticket prices were economical for a bunch of college students on a budget. Located just west of town, its 400 spaces drew folks from all over the county. Today the site is occupied by DTE Energy Offices.
Hi-Way Drive-In near Sandusky
Today there are no drive-ins in the Upper Thumb. The nearest one is the Hi-Way Drive-In in Sandusky. The Hi-Way is considered the oldest continuous running drive-in in Michigan. This drive-in has the traditional snack bar & indoor concessions, open seasonally since 1948. You can check to move times on their hotline at 810-657-6684.
Drive-In Theaters that Remain in Michigan
There are twelve big-screen drive-in movie theatres in the state of Michigan. They are a fun reminder of when everyone drove larger vehicles where the backseat was as big as a couch. Drive-In Theaters are an ideal family entertainment venue that offers the safety of social distancing. Because everyone is in their own vehicle, you don’t have to worry about limited capacity guidelines. These outdoor theaters also offer sound systems that can be rented or heard on your car radio FM band. So you don’t have to touch an old clunky speaker box that hangs on your window.
Bringing in your own food is discouraged as food, popcorn, cotton candy, and your favorite snacks and be purchased at the theater concession stands. Some concessions offer delivery to your car. From time-to-time, some theaters offer live music in front of the silver screen before showtime.
Most of these drive-ins have a Facebook Page or a website that offers the schedule of new release movies playing. These remaining drive ins offer a glimpse of what folks did on summer nights in the days before VCRs, DVDs, and Streaming Services.
- Five Mile Drive-in Movie Theater – Dowagiac – Built in 1961 the 5 Mile Drive-In movie theater can host up to 500 cars; one of the largest in the state. A small local FM radio broadcast has replaced the traditional window hanging speakers. This is a great northern Michigan summer drive-in.
- Sunset Drive-In Theater – Hartford – Operating since 1948 the Sunset Drive-in Movie Theater in Hartford Michigan has been delighting movie-going family’s, couples, and friends. This nostalgic drive-in is the sister drive-in to 5 Mile Drive-in Theater in Dowagiac Michigan
- Ford Wyoming Drive-In Theatre – Dearborn – Located on Ford Road this 250 car Drive-In Movie theater always offers a double-feature each night. With five screens and open year around this theater is considered metro Detroit’s leader in the outdoor film screening.
- The New US 23 Drive-in Theater – Flint – Located on Fenton road this large 3 screen movie theater is said to host over 125,000 visitors each season.
- Getty Drive-In – Muskegon – Found on East Summit Ave in Muskegon the outdoor theater runs double features on new releases every night.
- Hi-Way Drive Inn – Sandusky – Located 5 miles east of Sandusky and 9 miles west of Port Sanilac (on the shore of Lake Huron) on M-46 in Carsonville, Michigan. The single screen theater is about an hour’s drive from downtown Detroit and southeast Michigan. Offers first run movies each weekend during the season.
- Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre – Honor – Operating for over 60 years the drive-in theater is 18 miles southwest of Traverse City on US31 South, 7 miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline and Sleeping Bear Dune National Park. The theater is known for its showing of family-friendly films between Christmas and New Years’. The venue also has a playground and mini-golf.
- USA Hockey Drive-In – Plymouth – This drive-in is adjunct to the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth Township, Michigan, which opened in 1996. Originally known as the Compuware Sports Arena.
- Monroe Street Drive-In – This Emagine large screen outdoor theater is located in downtown Detroit. Emagine Entertainment is well known for its luxury theatres. Due to Covid they went retro and set up the Monroe Street Drive-In in the heart of downtown Detroit. The cost is $20 per vehicle and they allow you to bring your own food. Or you can even order it from any of the local restaurants.
- Downriver Drive-In – The Downriver Drive-in offers a weekend drive-in movie theater experience at the Crystal Gardens Banquet Facility on 16703 Fort St in Southgate.
- Macomb County Drive-In – Has a huge LED screen, at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater on Metro Parkway, (16 Mile Road) in Sterling Heights The earlier show is generally a family-friendly film.
Canterbury Village Drive-In – Located in Orion township, this drive-in features one of the newer LED screens and is limited to 160 vehicles. At this time, we are unsure if Canterbury Village will continue this venue in 2021.
Related Reading for Michigan’s Drive-In Theaters
Upper Thumb Radio Stations – The Upper Thumb is the home to a very diverse blend of radio stations. While the region surrounded stations from Bay City, Tawas, and Detroit the area held its own with great local programming. Here is a detailed listing of Michigan’s Upper Thumb Radio stations located in Huron, Sanilac, and Tuscola County. Listen to their streaming broadcasts live and see coverage maps for each station.
Neat Things to Do in Michigan’s Upper Thumb That Are Free – If you are ever at a loss for things to do in the Upper Thumb, you found the right spot. We went looking for neat and interesting things to do and came up with this list of 10 free things to do in Michigan’s Thumb. Check back with us from time to time as we will find more fun down the road.
Can You Tour Wind Farms in the Upper Thumb? – The question was simple enough. “Does anyone offer a Tour of the Michigan Wind Farms in the Upper Thumb?” We had been to a wind farm tour during the Cheeseburger in Caseville festival in August. Touring a Wind Farm can be another thing to do if you’re visiting Caseville, Port Austin, or Harbor Beach this summer.
The Sparling Murders An Interview with Author Jacki Howard – I was surprised at the number of people who mentioned that their grandfather or uncle was involved as a juror or in law enforcement. The tragic murders of four family members of the Sparling family near the town of Tyre in the early 1900s still resonates in the thumb today.