Editor’s Note: As The Michigan Daily celebrates its 125th anniversary, take a look at another chapter of history — that of the Michigan Theater.
“To go where so many had gone before.” I can’t tell if that’s a romantic sentiment or just how I feel about going into a public bathroom. After all, everyone’s been everywhere, or at least walked everywhere.
So why did I care so much when I stepped into the Michigan Theater for the thousandth time to see another new indie movie with another awesome Kristen Wiig performance and buy another Coke, another ticket, another Screening Room seat? The theater is Ann Arbor’s cultural center, sure, but those are just words. Why care?
Here’s why. In another world, the Michigan Theater might’ve been a food court. Really. It’s a true story. And Henry Aldridge — author of “The Michigan Theater” and head organist at the theater — had time to tell us the whole thing.
“It was built as a movie palace and opened in January 1928 with a live show and a feature film,” Aldridge said. “It had a resident 13-piece orchestra and, of course, the beautiful Barton pipe organ. The Michigan ran silent films until June 1929 when it switched to talking films.”
Talking films led to a rapid decline in live performances at the Michigan and across the country. Meanwhile, cinemas became the sole proprietor of the cultural and commercial phenomena: talkies. According to Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater and State Theatre, annual attendance at cinemas around the country reached upwards of 4 billion.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Collins likened the growth of film to the growth of the Internet: At first no one had it, then a few people did, then everyone did and no one could imagine life without films. And then they added talking.
“People don’t think of movie history like that,” Collins said. “They think of it like, ‘Well there was the silent era which was like pre-history and who gives a shit? It was all dinosaurs and that kind of crap, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what we do now.”
The Michigan found similar success to other cinemas. Until the 1950s, when television surpassed film as the principal means of entertainment and every theater hurt. To combat declining audience numbers, the theater’s ownership authorized drastic renovations to the theater space.
“All of the chandeliers and mirrors were removed,” Aldridge said. “The gold, blue and red colors were painted over and the wall treatments in the auditorium simplified. The facade of the theater was stripped of decorations and a modern marquee was put up in the place of the traditional one with the vertical blade sign.”
Over the next two decades though, the Michigan’s new “modernized” appearance wouldn’t be enough to solidify its place in Ann Arbor, and, faced with stiff competition, Butterfield made plans to close the theater in 1979 and turn the space into a food court. But, of course, this was not to be, not if Henry Aldridge had anything to say about it. With 14 months advanced notice about the closing, Aldridge sought out colleagues and supporters of the Michigan.
“Beginning in June 1978, when we first heard of plans to repurpose the theater, I started calling and visiting anyone and everyone I could think of to see if we could come up with a strategy to save the theater. I was politely rebuffed by most people who saw no need for a slightly worn out old movie theater.”
Naturally, not everyone was enthusiastic. According to Collins, some Ann Arbor locals wondered why their town needed another “big theater,” in part because the Power Center, which opened in 1971, was still relatively new. Despite some support, it seemed that the Michigan might not be saved after all, that Aldridge’s efforts would ultimately be impassioned but ineffective.
But then Aldridge’s friend put him in contact with Mayor Lou Belcher, and the two came up with the idea of establishing a 501(c)(3) corporation to purchase the theater, or in Aldridge’s words: “Mayor Belcher knew how to get things done.”
With Belcher’s know-how, Aldridge’s determination and the financial support of community members — specifically and especially philanthropist Margaret Towsley — the Michigan was purchased. On Sept. 28, 1979, after being closed for only six weeks, the Michigan Theater reopened with a showing of the feature film “Gigi.” The advertisement read, “The Michigan Theater’s Screen Glows Again.”
“Within days, groups such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival, folk singers, rock bands and others approached us about booking the theater. We operated the theater until May l980 with a handful of volunteers until our first manager was hired,” Aldridge said.
Since the reopening, the Michigan Theater has undergone a series of costly but crucial renovations. From the foyer, auditorium and ceiling to the addition of a screening room and offices, the Michigan Theater has left its “modernized” renovations in the ’50s, where they belong. According to Aldridge, “The Michigan looks very much like it did in 1928.”
Now, beyond architectural and interior grandeur, the theater has returned to its roots. It keeps busy. Collins is the executive director of the Michigan, yes, but also operates the State Theatre, the Cinetopia Film Festival and the Art House Convergence, a national conference for independent cinemas that the Michigan runs in association with Sundance.
In addition to films, the Michigan Theater hosts live music, concerts, symphonies, children’s programs, silent movies, stand-up, lectures, classes, Broadway shows, plays and, of course, the famous Barton Theatre Pipe Organ, which is the auditorium’s original organ installed in 1927. The Michigan is the home of the Penny Stamps Lecture Series, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Pops Orchestra and countless other events, from English department cocktail parties to Law School graduations. To list every brilliant, famous person who’s ever performed or spoken at the Michigan would give my editor an aneurysm, so I’ll just mention a few: David Sedaris, B.B. King, Pussy Riot, Joe Jackson, Iggy Pop, Mike Birbiglia (my favorite) and many, many more. And then again, more after that.
As I sat in Collins’s office, on his visitor chair — which is, obviously, a small director’s chair — he told me many things, but one in particular that I didn’t understand at the time, not fully anyway:
“The Michigan Theater is an interesting laboratory for studying how things are completely different and exactly the same.”
The pipe organ. The renovations. The movies. Live performances — just like 1928. As he led me to his office, Collins and I stopped by the auditorium, where some tech guys were turning nobs on the soundboard, and a band tested their microphones. It was John Hiatt and The Combo, who were performing at the Michigan that night.
All I could think about was the theater, how it almost wasn’t there and then it was, and how much it matters to so many. To Henry Aldridge. To Russ Collins. To me. To freshmen who aren’t sure why there are two old cinemas right next to each other, but who eventually learn. To every theater employee who’s ever caught the end of “Birdman” right before clean-up. To so many who have gone before.
More than 80 years of history, conflict, struggles, buyouts, sales, constructions, renovations, plans, performances, losses, gains, films, Cokes, 20-somethings. More than 80 years of students like me, caring about our theater, our theater that now sits between an Elevation Burger and the Tropical Smoothie Café, that rubs shoulders with Graffiti Alley.
The Michigan Theater is still here. It’s not a food court. It’s an institution, an inseparable part of Ann Arbor’s wiring. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think what Collins said about film could (should) really be about the Michigan:
“It didn’t exist, and then it existed and a few people had it. And then it existed and a whole bunch of people had it, but not everybody. And then, everybody thought it was really cool.”
This week, the Michigan Theater is showing “Grandma.” I hear it’s pretty good. Maybe I’ll go alone. Maybe I’ll sit in someone’s old usual seat, and I won’t even know it. And that, well, that’ll be really cool.
And that’s why we care.