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

"This is a story of dedication and hard work," said Todd Williams, who was standing at the center of more than a decade’s worth of planning, clearing, and building.

Don Collins (left) and Todd Williams (right) in front of their Drive-in movie theater screen

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

It’s also a story of junkyard opportunism, gritty triumph, and familial tragedy - not unlike the movies now playing at the Memory Lane Drive-in Theater in Monroe County.

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

Of course, not everything goes right when a project takes so many years to complete. The half-working machines now covered in unmowed grass in the back are a testament to that. "A land of misfit machines" as Williams's wife called it.

But as Williams has known all his life, any challenge he takes on, he knows he’ll overcome.

"No matter what, you don’t give up. Ever. This is 12 years of relentless pursuit," he said.

‘How about building a drive-in with me?’

The pursuit started at a drive-in theater in Cleveland that Williams visited that many years ago. He didn’t know how and he wasn’t sure when, but he would build his own drive-in. It was his Noah's Ark, he said. 

But one thing was certain - he needed money. An auto mechanic by trade, his first step was to open his own shop. Along the way, Collins, who had already been his friend for years got asked to help around the shop.

Five years passed before he popped the question.

"One day I just looked at him and asked, ‘how do you feel about building a drive-in with me?’" Williams recalls asking

"One day I just looked at him and asked, ‘how do you feel about building a drive-in with me?’" Williams recalls asking his friend. A quick pause then Collins said "Ok." Photo via Jack Nissen

"One day I just looked at him and asked, ‘how do you feel about building a drive-in with me?’" Williams recalls asking. It had been a slow time in the shop - one of the few the duo had while operating it.

"There was a pause, then ‘OK,’" Collins remembers saying.

Their dream vision included boat docks and a waterfront. But that was near-impossible. A more modest expectation put them in Brownstown in southern Wayne County. But the price tag for land fell in the millions of dollars - a nonstarter.

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

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

Making new memories

"The fact it was a drive-in was the cherry on top," Williams said. "It’s super close to the highways, it’s an easy destination to reach. It’s got a campground-esque feel."

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

One screen is already up and running, but the men plan to put up two more screens using the structures from the pop-up theater at the former Pontiac Silverdome site. A new drive-in theater screen can cost $250,000. But Williams managed to salvage three of them for $12,000. It cost another $30,000 to transport them and will eventually include a $60,000 price tag to get them erected.

"For half the price of getting a new one standing, I got all of them," Williams said.

Pieces of the former Silver Dome pop-up drive-in theater

Pieces of the former Silver Dome pop-up drive-in theater. They'll be erected sometime in the futue. Photo via Jack Nissen 

Had they been any luckier, they would have successfully snagged pieces from the bathrooms at the former Joe Louis Arena and old ticket counters from the Gibraltar Trade Center - icons of an era fading from memory.

But the cheesy movie symbolism didn’t stop there. The new concession stand uses pieces from an old Sterling Heights Toys R Us. Parts from the old concession stand were used to clear the land after the first bought it.

"We were really just trying to keep alive a lot of history," Collins said. "There’s a reason this is called Memory Lane Drive-in."

Wins and losses

When the two first arrived, they found several acres of unused land. It would take 14 months to clear the entire space. They used a derelict tractor from the 1950s to knock over trees and a homemade rake attached to a bulldozer to clear the land.

"This thing looked like it was out of Mad Max," Collins said.

He estimates they threw 1,500 trees into their woodchipper that became 300 piles of debris. That raw material would eventually be graded across the lot where cars would soon park.

About 4,900 feet of fencing lines the sides of the property that took six months to put up. It was one of the first milestones that stand out for the duo.

"If we were drinking guys, we would have toasted," Collins remembers.

The Memory Lane Marquee

The Memory Lane Marquee. Photo via Jack Nissen

There were casualties, too. Most of the machines were used until they quit. Any free time the men had at night and on the weekends was spent on the property since they still had day jobs. Williams and his family had to sell their dream home to afford the project. But the lost time didn’t compare to the losses of family inflicted in the last months of work.

Collins lost his dad in September 2020. His father tracked 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 that screen," he remembers.

Williams lost his mom the night before they opened. She also told him she had wanted to be there on opening day, but in the weeks leading up, she wasn’t so sure. Then, the night before opening, Williams was putting the finishing touches on the projector. He remembers feeling joy and wanting to call his mom upon completion. "But it was 12:15 in the morning. Of course I’m not calling her this early in the morning."

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

"Our biggest fans are both gone before we open," Williams remembers, tears in his eyes.

The Memory Lane Drive-In opened May 28 to freezing cold, rain, and about 50 cars. The melancholy from that morning had stuck around into the night.

But on Day two, about 80 people came. On Memorial Day Eve. 120 cars showed up. Williams opted to show classics like Top Gun and E.T. and people showed up in greater numbers.

The bittersweet taste of opening day started to be replaced with something more cheerful. The squeals of delight from kids that Collins and Williams heard while the movies played added a new sense of happiness.

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

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

Jack Nissen is a reporter at FOX 2 Detroit. You can contact him at