Let’s say you’re a self-made, no-nonsense guy and you’ve made millions in New York real estate. You’ve lived through Woodstock, Watergate and Reaganomics, but you yearn for a simpler time—a time when you sped through the streets in your ’49 Plymouth with a girl by your side. You long to be back at the drive-in with the stars overhead, popcorn in your hand and James Dean on the screen.
What do you do if the year is 1988 and you live in New York City, where Plymouths are scarcer than snail darters and the last outdoor movie theater disappeared with double features. If you’re Michael Dezer, you build the world’s only indoor drive-in—sort of. And if you’re Dezer, who really loved the ’50s, you would include a collection of vintage convertibles for seating, screen old classics like Rebel Without a Cause and add lots of ’50s kitsch for the vibes. Then you would call the place Dezerland and open the doors.
“I’m addicted to the ’50s phenomenon,” says Dezer, 47. “That’s why I’m going to build Dezerlands all over the world.”
So far, the world has been graced with only two Dezerlands, the largest being the Manhattan warehouse where, since April, Dezer has been offering the drive-in experience to thousands of inveterate subway riders. The American Classics Drive-In is just part of the 100,000-square-foot complex that Dezer advertises as “America’s largest ’50s extravaganza,” and where a true ’50s fanatic could wear out his blue suede shoes covering all the attractions. The first floor houses Hot Rod, a dance club where customers bop to Elvis, Chuck and Buddy while swilling beers from an old Shell gas pump; Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, on the second floor, features weekly live flashback acts like the Coasters and the Platters; and a museum on the fourth and fifth floors features Dezer’s personal fleet of more than 300 “Dream Cars,” ranging from Steve McQueen’s 1952 Hudson to more than 40 ’59 Cadillacs. An ice-cream parlor will open this fall, then maybe a diner. Someday, Dezer would also like to have a hotel where devotees can eat, sleep and breathe the ’50s. He already owns one such edifice, the Surf-side Beach Hotel in Miami Beach. This second Dezerland is a refitted Holiday Inn where all 230 rooms are named after classic cars, and the penthouse looks down on a mosaic of a ’59 Caddy embedded in the bottom of the pool 10 floors below.
So far, Dezer says, he has spent more than $20 million indulging his passion for the past. “I do it as a labor of love,” he explains. “You see, the ’60s rolled around too fast, and depression set in. America didn’t have time to take pride in the early ’50s. I want people to remember these years.”
Dezer remembers the ’50s as the best time of his life. A bus driver’s son, he was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in an emerging society. “In the ’50s, Israel was very cosmopolitan; immigrants and cars came from all over Europe, South Africa, America,” he says. “The car was the sign of a macho man. You worked months and months on one to create an extension of yourself.” His own auto alter ego was a ’49 Plymouth. “I made it two-tone blue, with stripes, horns and decals,” he remembers happily. “It was the nicest car in Israel.”
In 1962 he sold the Plymouth to his father and spent the money on ship fare to New York. There he went to night school, hustled his way into the advertising business and married Neomi Kerekes, a fellow Israeli who was introduced to him by a mutual friend. He branched out into the typesetting business, then into real estate. Now he owns 15 buildings in Manhattan and holds shares in eight others. Because of his growing wealth, he won’t talk about his children, ages 9, 13 and 18. “There are a lot of nuts out there,” he explains.
At first Dezer poured his profits into an antique auto collection that is now worth $10 million. (Its jewel is a $500,000 1928 Dusenberg.) Then in 1985 he decided he needed a place to house the cars that he had stored around the country. He paid $5 million for a warehouse on Eleventh Avenue in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, spent $5 million more making it into a ’50s dreamland, and the rest, as they say in Dezerland, is history.
Dezer spends most weekdays in the fantasyland bearing his name, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and dirty sneakers, eating cotton candy and showing off his cars to confused patrons who assume he is one of the handymen. Then he goes home to a sort of residential Dezerland in suburban New Jersey. A vintage Wurlitzer there plays sock-hop tunes; a ’50s gas pump, converted into a clock, gives the time; the walls and shelves display old car lithographs and a collection of auto sculptures.
For a change of pace, if not of milieu, Dezer frequently flies to Miami Beach to spend a weekend at the Surfside Beach. He plans to build an international chain of Dezerlands—not simply for profit, he explains, but as a public service. “I want to share this with people who haven’t been fortunate enough to have made the kind of money I have,” he says. “I’m lucky. I’ve lived in Dezerland all my life.”
—By Patricia Freeman, with Mary Huzinec in New York