Cherry Bowl Drive-In is a Northern Michigan Summer Tradition

Two decades after a memorable double date, our managing editor returned to Honor’s Cherry Bowl Drive-In and found the scene alive and well. (Friends, the Cherry Bowl reopened for the 2020 season on June 12. Go catch a show!) 

In celebration of our 40th anniversary in 2020, we’re digging into our archives and sharing classic stories told over the years in Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. We hope you enjoy this look back as much as we do!

This piece was featured in June 1994 in the feature “Return to the Passion Pit.”

“Where do you want to sit?” The question hung as thick as sky writing in the summer air, then hit my 16-year-old gut like a bad case of gas. The question had been put to my best friend Carol and me by our respective summer crushes, Dave and Mike. Actually, the term “crush” is mild. We were infatuated with the pair. While they were clearly interested, they’d been playing cat-and-mouse with us since we’d arrived for summer vacation. They had home-court advantage, and they knew it.

Up until that point, our dates had been casual and always a four-some—tennis, waterskiing, sailing. But the question signified it was time to pair off.

They had tossed their question out with seeming innocence, but we all knew its implications; on that warm June evening in 1974, the four of us were bound for the movies in Honor—at the Cherry Bowl Drive-In.

Back East, where Carol and I lived the rest of the year, drive-in theaters had faded away about the time we were outgrowing our Dr. Dentons. Nevertheless, the term “passion pit” still throbbed with meaning in our cultural subconscious. And too, there was no mistaking the similarity between that term and the local nickname for the Cherry Bowl: “the Cherry Pit.”

Carol was the first to answer.

“I don’t care,” she said.

“It’s up to you two,” I agreed.

Mike and Dave were having too much fun with their game of dangling two city girls on a line of small-town, aw-shucks etiquette to give in that easily.

“No, it’s up to you two,” Dave insisted, with the generosity of a card shark.

We were standing in front of Mike’s house on the outskirts of Glen Arbor, gathered around his 1965 Chevrolet. A couple of Mike’s brothers scooted arounds us on Sting Ray bikes. His parents, seated in lawn chairs, were watching with interest. We might as well have been making the decision in Madison Square Garden.

I finally mumbled back in desperation, “I’ll get in the back.”

That, of course, meant I’d chosen to sit next to Dave at the drive-in. Certainly not what I’d been dreaming of since I’d arrived in Glen Arbor in June, but a far safer choice than admitting my crush on Mike.

“OK, let’s go,” Mike said, flashing an amused smile over our heads at Dave.

The Chevy was missing one back door (Dave gallantly sat on that side), so the scent of pines, Lake Michigan and cooling, sunbaked sand rushed in to mingle with the heavy scent of Mike’s Brut aftershave. And the smell of broiled whitefish was ever-present; Mike and Dave were line cooks at The Homestead that summer. (When we were lucky, they let us sneak over for contraband prime rib and popovers.)

As the Chevy slid around the curves, the stuff of Mike and Dave’s life rolled around at our feet: scuba diving tanks, water skis, a Sunfish rudder, a couple of fishing poles. Since Carol and I lived in a place where much of the outdoors was paved over, the paraphernalia made us both wild with the spirit of adventure.

Outside the car, silhouettes of towering pines reached for each other across the road. The darkness was broken only by the Milky Way, smeared across the sky, and an occasional bonfire.

Then we turned onto US-31, and the huge, white Cherry Bowl screen loomed before us. We were late. Dean Jones was already cavorting on skis in The Snowball Express. Mike parked and hung the speaker on the door. We all sat as still as statues until the end of the first feature.

At intermission, Carol and I escaped to the bathroom, where we tried to make some sense of this strange date. Did the wrong boy like the wrong girl? Did they like us at all? Better play it cool, we decided.

We got back to the car before they did and slid into our seats. Minutes later they came, bearing popcorn and Coke.

Then, to our amazement, they switched seats: Mike slipped into the back with me, and Dave got in the front.   

As Mike’s arm came across my shoulders, he whispered, “I like you lots better than Carol.”

As Dave’s arm came across Carol’s shoulders, he whispered, “I like you lots better than Lissa.”

It would have been perfect if in his next breath Mike hadn’t whispered “Lisa” into my ear instead of “Lissa.” He’d been getting my name wrong all summer.

Needless to say, I don’t remember a lot of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the evening’s second feature.

Illustration by Matthew McCormick

New Memories at The Cherry Bowl

I hadn’t been back to the Cherry Bowl in 20 years when my husband (his name’s not Mike) and our two daughters and I went there in our Volkswagen camper van last summer. In the dusk, I could see that what I had expected to be an aging relic looked more like a ’55 T-Bird in mint condition.

The speakers hung neatly on their poles, and the cinder block concession building wore a fresh coat of paint. You’d have been hard-pressed to find so much as a cigarette butt on the grass—which was clipped, neat as a brush cut, around the hundreds of speaker poles. In the squeaky-clean bathroom, not a tile had changed since the night Carol and I quivered there in our bell-bottoms 20 years before.

I had to know why this drive-in survives and thrives, when most have long since vanished. With plenty of time before the show started, I left the girls with my husband and made my way through the parking area to meet the owner-manager. In the front of the lot, near the screen, children in pajamas played on a swing set. They called to each other, laughing and pumping their legs wildly. A pickup truck pulled up, and its occupants piled out and set up lawn chairs and coolers in the truck-bed. I maneuvered around spanking new mini-vans and battered old Chevrolets, around fancy European imports and no-nonsense economy cars. In them was a varied audience of young lovers, old lovers, friends and families.

I found the owner and manager, Tom (no last names please; he likes his privacy) outside the projection booth. He is slight but has the kind of deep, strong voice that’s made for radio. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he wore corduroy pants and a pair of sharp-toed cowboy boots. A thin gold chain framed his prominent Adam’s apple. As I settled into a lawn chair next to him to chat, I discovered something else: Tom wore Brut.

Born and raised in Beulah, Tom started working for the theater as a junior in high school in 1955—just two years after the Cherry Bowl opened. With the exception of a term as sheriff of Benzie County in the 1960s, and a short stint managing a local restaurant, Tom has worked at the theater ever since. He bought it from the original owner in 1979. He is, as he put it: “Pretty much a fixture at this place.” Tom was surely in the projection booth on my memorable date in 1974.

It isn’t news to him that his theater makes people wax nostalgic. There’s only one other drive-in left in Western Michigan, and that’s way down in Muskegon.

That sort of fact could get a person worrying that their business has about as much future as repairing buggy whips. “You can’t really say you like it because every time one closes, that’s another one that’s not going to be there,” Tom says. “On the other hand, the ones left get to be more nostalgic.”

Tom has never been one to give up on a good idea. Years before anyone dreamed the Beach Boys would outlast the Iron Curtain, Tom knew enough not to tinker with his drive-in. “It’s like everything else, things go in cycles,” he says. “People are getting back to the ‘50s theme in everything nowadays. Rather than try to modernize, I’ve kept things the same. As far as what you see on the outside, if you’d come here in 1953 and sat out in the yard and then not come back until today you’d a thought time stood still. The only difference is cars are either smaller or bigger. That’s even the original screen,” he says, with a nod toward the screen where, at that moment, in a pre-movie ad, a pat of butter was in the midst of jumping on top of a tub of popcorn. I have a friend who’s in his 40s who says that the butter has been jumping onto the popcorn as long as he can remember.

“Everything is exactly the same except the equipment in the booth has all been updated,” Tom continues. “One thing that we get more excitement over than anything else, is that we still use real butter on our popcorn.”

Nostalgia, however, is just the icing on the cake of history. The real reason the Cherry Bowl has survived four decades is that it is well-managed. Tom is on the grounds, working, every night the theater is open. He can’t imagine not being there. “For some reason, and I’ve got no idea why, maintenance started to slip real bad in drive-ins during the mid-’60s,” he says. “You’d go and the grass had grown halfway up the speaker poles and only half the speakers worked.”

“We have ‘em go bad too,” he continues. “But you send somebody out to change it. We take pride in what we do.”

Among the dozen or so employees you’ll see around the theater in the evening are two or three security guards quietly strolling the grounds. They’re on hand to keep things orderly: to make sure vans park in the back, and to keep people from climbing on top of their cars and obstructing the view.

The security guards are also there to spot stowaways, although people now seldom try the old trick of hiding someone in the trunk. “There’s really not room in the trunks in most of these new compact cars to fit anybody,” Tom explains. “And if they do try to hide they’re a lot easier to spot because with these smaller cars, if you put a person in the trunk the cars going to set likes this,” Tom says, holding his hand out with the palm at a slant. “If you’re at the box office and you see a car come up with the bumper dragging, you just watch and sooner or later somebody opens the trunk and gets out. That’s the easiest way to catch ‘em. Or just go up and start talking and pretty soon they start banging on the trunk because they get panicky.”

The size of modern cars isn’t the only deterrent to stowaways. People hardly bother because the Cherry Bowl is a heck of a deal. Kids get in free, and the price of a ticket for two movies is less than to see one in town. The Cherry Bowl also always plays a recent release.

Keeping up with new releases, however, is getting harder and harder to do. The competition from multiple-screen theaters is fierce, Tom explains. Most movie companies, he says, demand a week’s play, but a multiple-screen theater can hold one movie over while adding new ones on its other screens. “Back in the ‘50s we used to run three changes a week,” Tom recalls. “And Friday and Saturday we’d run three or four shows dusk to dawn.”

To make matters worse, the price of bringing in a movie has soared. “In reality, back when movie tickets were 55 cents you made more than what you do now at the price they are,” Tom explains.

Despite the competition, the Cherry Bowl has made a niche for itself. Many nights during July and August, the 300-car lot is full. And for summer families in the area, it’s an institution right up there with Gwen Frostic and swimming in Crystal Lake. “There are still people who come in that I’ve known them or their families for 15 or 20 years,” Tom says. “I get probably half-dozen letters a year from people who express what a good time they’ve had and how glad they are that we’re still open.”