Auto mechanics

How two Lincoln Park auto mechanics built a drive-in movie theater in Michigan

“It’s a story of dedication and hard work,” said Todd Williams, who stood at the center of more than a decade of planning, cleaning and construction.

Don Collins (left) and Todd Williams (right) in front of their Drive-in cinema screen. Photo by Jack Nissen

It’s also a tale of dumpster opportunism, brutal triumph, and family tragedy – much like the movies currently showing at the Memory Lane Drive-in Theater in County Monroe.

12 years ago Williams found his life’s calling to build the theater and about five years ago when his friend and colleague Don Collins agreed to help him build it. Together, the two fat monkeys of Lincoln Park would pave the way for Michigan’s newest drive-in.

Of course, not everything goes well when a project takes so many years to complete. The half-working machines now covered in unmown grass at the rear are proof of this. “A land of unsuitable machines,” as Williams’ wife called it.

But as Williams has known his whole life, no matter what challenge he takes on, he knows he will overcome it.

“No matter what, you don’t give up. Never. It’s 12 years of relentless pursuit,” he said.

“How about you build a drive-through with me?” “

The chase began at a drive-in in Cleveland that Williams visited many years ago. He didn’t know how and he didn’t know when, but he would build his own drive-in. It was his Noah’s ark, he said.

But one thing was certain: he needed the money. An auto mechanic by training, his first step was to open his own workshop. Along the way, Collins, who had already been his friend for years, was asked to help him in the store.

Five years passed before he asked the question.

"One day, I just looked at it and I asked, “How do you feel about building a drive-in with me?

“One day I just looked at him and asked him, ‘How do you feel about building a drive-in with me? “” Williams remembers asking his friend. A short pause then Collins said “Ok.” Photo by Jack Nissen

“One day I just looked at him and asked him, ‘How do you feel about building a drive-in with me? “” Williams remembers. It had been a slow time in the store – one of the few the duo had had using it.

“There was a pause, then ‘OK’,” Collins recalls.

Their dream vision included boat docks and a waterfront. But it was nearly impossible. A more modest wait placed them in Brownstown, in southern Wayne County. But the price of land has fallen by several million dollars – a non-starter.

Space was limited if they went east and they didn’t want to encroach on Detroit since there was already a drive-in there. So they settled in northern Monroe County.

Unbeknownst to them, the same piece of land they eventually acquired was the old Denniston Theater, just off I-75. Originally opened in 1956, it closed almost 30 years later.

Make new memories

“The fact that it was a drive-through was the icing on the cake,” said Williams. “It’s very close to the highways, it’s an easy destination to reach. It gives an impression of camping. “

The history of the site is one of the reasons for the nostalgic title of the place. Collins and Williams wanted to build a place that paid homage to the majesty of drive-ins long closed to the Michigan landscape. But they also wanted to build a place where new memories could be made.

A screen is already operational, but the men plan to install two more using the structures of the ephemeral theater of the former Pontiac Silverdome site. A new drive-in cinema screen can cost $ 250,000. But Williams managed to get three of them for $ 12,000. It cost an additional $ 30,000 to transport them and will eventually include a price of $ 60,000 to have them erected.

“For half the price of getting a new one, I bought them all,” Williams said.

Pieces from the former Silver Dome ephemeral drive-in

Pieces from the former Silver Dome ephemeral drive-in. They will be erected in the future. Photo by Jack Nissen

If they had been luckier, they would have managed to salvage parts from the bathrooms of the old Joe Louis Arena and the old counters of the Gibraltar Trade Center – icons of an era that are fading from memory.

But the film’s cheesy symbolism didn’t end there. The new concession stand uses parts from a former Sterling Heights Toys R Us. Parts of the old concession stand were used to clear the land after the first was purchased.

“We were really trying to keep a lot of the story alive,” Collins said. “There’s a reason it’s called Memory Lane Drive-in.”

Victories and defeats

When the two first arrived, they found several hectares of unused land. It would take 14 months to clean up the entire space. They used an abandoned 1950s tractor to overturn trees and a homemade rake attached to a bulldozer to clear the land.

“This thing looked like it came out of Mad Max,” Collins said.

He estimates that they threw 1,500 trees into their chipper which turned into 300 piles of debris. This raw material would eventually be classified on the lot where cars would soon be parking.

Approximately 4,900 feet of fencing line the sides of the property, which took six months to put in place. It was one of the first milestones for the duo.

“If we guys had been drinking, we would have toasted,” Collins recalls.

The capital of the way of memory

The Memory Lane marquee. Photo by Jack Nissen

There were also victims. Most of the machines were used until they stopped. All the free time the men had at night and on weekends was spent on property since they still had day jobs. Williams and his family had to sell their dream home to afford the project. But the time lost could not compare to the loss of family inflicted in the last few months of work.

Collins lost his father in September 2020. His father followed his son’s progress every step of the way, eager to be there for the grand opening. “Dad just said he wanted to see a movie on this screen,” he recalls.

Williams lost her mother the day before the opening. She also told him that she had wanted to be there on opening day, but in the weeks leading up to that, she wasn’t so sure. Then, the day before the opening, Williams put the finishing touches on the spotlight. He remembers feeling happy and wanting to call his mother at the end. “But it was 12:15 in the morning. Of course, I don’t call him that early in the morning.”

At 11 a.m. the next day, her phone rang with the news. She had died in her sleep the night before.

“Our biggest fans both left before the opening,” Williams recalls with tears in his eyes.

Memory Lane Drive-In opened on May 28 in freezing cold, rain and around 50 cars. The melancholy of this morning had remained in the night.

But on the second day, about 80 people came. The eve of Memorial Day. 120 cars showed up. Williams chose to show classics like Top Gun and ET and people came in greater numbers.

The bittersweet taste of the opening day began to be replaced by something more cheerful. The children’s cries of joy that Collins and Williams heard while playing the movies added a new sense of happiness.

It had been 12 long years. But it was worth it.

The Memory Lane Drive-In Theater is located at 6501 N. Monroe Frenchtown. Check out more information on upcoming films here.

Jack Nissen is a reporter for FOX 2 Detroit. You can contact him at [email protected]