The Gratiot Drive-In – 1948

By Rachel Smith

Out of a small box propped up on the family car window one can hear the sound of a movie while it plays on the massive screen in front of a packed parking lot of vehicles. Families are gathered and children are wearing their favorite pajamas, sharing snacks and blankets with their siblings while all eyes are glued to the movie.

This is an experience fondly remembered by many families in the Roseville area between the late 1940s and the early 1980s. The Gratiot Drive-In was a staple in their summertime lives. Located at the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Masonic Boulevard, the Gratiot Drive- In opened on April 30, 1948 with the film Joe Palooka in the Knockout, boasting a 115 foot tower with a 60 foot, three-tiered waterfall on the back side of the film screen.

The large photo above was taken shortly after the drive-in opened and shows the view of the movie screen from the back in front of the vehicles. The smaller photo shows the front entrance with the famous waterfall. One of only two in the world, The Gratiot Drive-In’s waterfall featured colorful lights, mimicking Niagara Falls at nighttime.

The tower, with the large, steel “Gratiot Drive In” on top, was a landmark in the area and could been seen from a far distance. Sound was delivered via RCA speakers that clipped onto the front car window, as seen by the wires coming from the cars to the posts in the photo.

To draw in families, the Gratiot Drive-In offered a large playground with free pony rides at the base of the film tower, free admission for kids under 12, and a bottle service with the large restaurant on the lot. Additional services included ticket takers at all six entrance lanes, free windshield cleaning and plentiful concessions. Fireworks were also set off on the Fourth of July from beyond the back fence.

The Gratiot Drive-In usually displayed second-run films, with 2-3 showings a night. Before the first film of the night cartoons and newsreels would play. Later on, as more teens and couples frequented the drive-in, adult films were shown as the last film of the night, only on weekends.

It was a popular night-time destination for families during the weekdays and for teens or couples on Friday and Saturday nights. The teens were usually a rowdier bunch, boasting pranks and attempts to sneak in. A memorable prank was when teens put soap in the tub at the bottom of the waterfall, causing a mountain of bubbles. And, many residents recall trying to sneak in by hiding in the trunk of a friend’s car to avoid paying 65  a person, however with only a single teen driver in the car, ticket-takers were suspicious and the teens were usually caught.

Although the Gratiot Drive-In stayed a popular and profitable destination well into the 1980s, the development of the surrounding area raised the value of the land. The Gratiot Drive-In closed after Labor Day 1984 and the lot was sold for 10 million dollars and demolished shortly after closing. Although the Gratiot Drive- In has been closed for nearly four decades, it is still a fond memory in the minds of many local residents.

Photo courtesy of the Roseville Public Library Archives.

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