One of only 340 drive-ins left in the country, and only one of 10 in the state, the Cherry Bowl is a beloved local landmark, carrying the flame for wholesome outdoor entertainment.
BIG SCREEN HERITAGE
Laura Clark and her husband Harry purchased the drive-in from its original owners back in 1997, after leaving corporate jobs and moving Up North to raise their family.
Harry Clark passed away in 2012; gone was the booming, beloved voice heard nightly on the drive-in’s loudspeaker. But Laura Clark, with the support of the community, decided to keep the Cherry Bowl’s long and storied history moving forward.
Built in 1953 by Jean Griffin and her husband in the middle of a cherry orchard, the drive-in opened for the first time on July 4, 1953 with the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a Cecil B. DeMille circus epic.
The original screen tower – still used today – was constructed using huge California redwood trees that were crossed at angles. In 1959, the screen was widened to accept the newest film phenomenon: Cinemascope.
“The redwoods can still be seen from inside the screen tower,” said Laura Clark. “And the original speaker poles that were installed in rows using underground wire are also still being used.”
Today, movies are broadcast through car radios on Cherry Bowl’s FM radio station. There are also pole-mounted speakers, powered by the drive-in’s original 1953 Motiograph vacuum tube amps, for those inclined to go vintage.
“The speaker caps produce a warm red glow at night for a truly exceptional visual experience during the movie,” Clark said.
SAVING AN EXPERIENCE
But the drive-in movie isn’t something that everyone’s grown up with.
During its heyday from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, there were more than 4,000 driveins across the U.S., about 25 percent of movie screens.
Today that number hovers below two percent of all screens.
The oldest functioning one in the country is Shankweiler’s Drive-In, which has been in continuous operation in Pennsylvania since 1934. By the late ‘70s, as drive-ins started to decline in popularity, the theaters turned to gimmicks to get people coming again.
They tried everything: actor appearances, live monkeys, live bands, expanded snack bars, and tickets as low as $1 for a whole carload.
More recently, the demand for digital is stretching the budgets of the few remaining drive-ins to the breaking point.
Clark said the Cherry Bowl faced that dilemma – among others – last year.
“From the home television, to cable and VCRs, to DVRs and now movies on demand, all are competing for the average American’s disposable income,” she said. “But one of the biggest obstacles of all was the conversion from 120-year-old 35mm technology.”
It cost $80,000 to upgrade the equipment and provide the necessary year-round climate control environment.
But Project Drive-In, a drive-in theater awareness campaign run by Honda Motor Co., Inc., saved the day.
The online campaign had fans voting on which drive-in theater would get one of nine digital projection systems, and Cherry Bowl’s devoted fans stepped up to the plate.
“Thanks to Honda, we are able to look forward to another 61 years of providing a Cherry Bowl Drive-In experience people will never forget,” Clark said.
Known today for family-friendly entertainment that everyone can enjoy, the Cherry Bowl plays only top 10 movies that are rated PG-13 or less.
There’s always a double feature preceded by the “The Star Spangled Banner.” Old black and white ads are even played on the screen during intermission, and a snack diner and themed mini golf keep the kids fed and busy.
The whole experience is meant to leave a memorable impression, Clark said.
“Watching the digital movie on the screen, with the stars in the sky, surrounded by your family and friends … it creates lasting memories,” she said.
Regulars suggest arriving early to pick a spot before the movie starts, which is always “rain or shine, dusk is the time.”
Original signage dots the concession’s interior, which still features the spot’s original popcorn popper.
And the preferred popcorn topping? Real, melted butter.
“[It’s] like taking a giant step back in time,” Clark said.
The Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theater is located at 9812 Honor Highway in Honor, Mich. For more, visit cherrybowldrivein.com, or check out their movie hotline at (231) 325-3413.