Coolest basement ever! Couple creates '50s-inspired diner and theater

Debra and Tedd March dreamed for decades about building a 1950s-style diner and drive-in theater in their Michigan basement, and when their 25th wedding anniversary rolled around, they finally gave themselves that gift. Their goal was to evoke the lunch counters of the now-shuttered Woolworth’s department stores, where Debra often dined with her grandmother, Violet Hepner.

Photos by Tammy Massingill except where noted.

Debra March had a clear idea — in her head — of how she wanted the diner/drive-in combo to look. The Marches enlisted the help of designer Nicole Salter, who spent six months researching and planning in order to transform the ideas in Debra March’s head into an actual plan. Construction took about five and a half months.

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From the beginning, the Marches wanted to have one zone in their open-space basement floor plan designated as the restaurant and the other as the drive-in theater. It was important to them that both areas be infused not only with nostalgic touches from the midcentury, but personal memories as well.

This photo shows the mural that the couple commissioned, which is intended to look like a window onto the town outside the diner. The buildings in it are a mix of those found in Monroe, where the couple live now, and Flat Rock, Michigan, where they both grew up. Debra gave the muralist her old cheerleading sweater as a model for the outfit that the blonde woman wears in the scene. The artist is LeAnn Harbaum.

The countertop, which has a red boomerang pattern, much like the one at the old Woolworth’s, was custom-made in the red color Debra had envisioned.

Creating the bar was one of the more challenging aspects of the project, says Salter, the designer. She came up with a quilted pattern that would give the stainless steel bar more visual interest than a flat panel, but she had to search extensively to find a company — American Counters in Toledo, Ohio, no longer in business — willing to custom-make it.

The jukebox pictured here was a gift that Tedd March gave his wife for their fifth wedding anniversary. That gift, 28 years ago, marked the beginning of their two decades of collecting vintage items in preparation for creating this diner/drive-in/basement.

The varsity letterman jackets here and in the prior photo belonged to the two March boys during their time at Monroe High School. Daughter Rebekah was a cheerleader; her letterman jacket and cheer uniform is also framed.

One luxury Debra is thrilled to have is the heated floor tiles. “In the middle of winter, being Michigan, you can go downstairs and within a couple hours it warms up that whole basement,” she says. Debra often cooks in her bare feet while entertaining.

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At the bottom right corner of this photo is a professional-grade griddle, where Debra makes seared tuna, burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.

It was important to have an oven hood that vented outside so that cooking smells wouldn’t permeate the basement.

A glass block lit by neon provides a transition between the diner and the drive-in.

The theater ceiling features twinkle lights, as though moviegoers are under the sparkling night sky. The lights can be adjusted to control the rate of their twinkle.

Salter and March chose shaggy green carpet for the theater floor, intending to mimic the look of grass. The back seats of the theater are on a raised platform that is outfitted with audio equipment that rumbles and shakes, making action movies more exciting. When the kids are home, the family enjoys lots of movie nights together here.

The movie screen is painted onto the wall, using a special movie-screen paint.

Debra March bought the scale on the right side of the candy counter at a Woolworth’s that was going out of business. Harris McClain custom-made the candy counter, using images of old dime store candy counters as inspiration. The two black panels beneath the awning are painted with chalkboard paint.

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The black car in the scene painted on the wall, also by Harbaum, the artist, is like a car that Debra March’s dad drove in high school.

The vintage candy machine actually works, and at vintage prices — put in a dime and get a candy bar.

In the background of this mural, Harbaum painted another black car that Debra’s father had driven when he was in high school. The posts are PVC pipe painted to look like lampposts that might be found at a drive-in.

Just off the diner, the Marches updated their bathroom to match the diner decor by adding the new vanity cabinet.

Tedd and Debra March take a seat at the counter in their 1950s diner.