The Michigan Theater and State Theatre, located in downtown Ann Arbor, have been home to countless movie screenings and performing arts events for the Ann Arbor and U-M communities in their respective 93 and 79 years of operation. The pair of historic theaters, operated by the Michigan Theater Foundation, have faced a year rife with challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In early March 2020, as COVID-19 began to take hold in the state, the Michigan and State theaters closed their doors as per an executive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The closure was intended to last for two weeks, but as the pandemic worsened, the theaters stayed closed indefinitely, with the marquees displaying reassuring messages such as “Flatten the Curve, See You Soon,” “Good Health to All,” and “Thank You Frontline Heros.”
Through the pause, the theaters offered virtual screenings, custom marquee messages, and concessions to-go. Nevertheless, the theaters averaged a weekly loss of $10,000, and as of September, the theaters had suffered a total loss of more than $1.3 million.
One of the theaters’ primary sources of support during the pandemic came from local community members, who rallied together to contribute via memberships, donations and sponsorships. Although the theaters were able to reopen in October 2020, they quickly had to close back down due to a statewide order in November.
In late January 2021, the theaters were able to reopen for limited in-person screenings. The Michigan Theater symbolically reopened with the film “A Hero for a Night,” which played at the original opening of the theater in 1928.
I visited the theaters in April during a sparsely attended matinee screening. As masked patrons entered, they were faced with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, distancing markers, and plexiglass barriers.
Inside the theaters, there was room for distancing, as the ticketing system guarantees at least six feet of space for each patron and attendance is capped at 50 percent. The concession stands were notably empty and the water and soda fountains closed, in part because masks are required in the theaters.
When the film started, employees wiped down surfaces in the lobby, and tended to tasks, such as changing poster displays and the text on the marquee.
Although the movie-going experience was significantly different, patrons said they were excited to get back out into the community and begin a return to normalcy.
In a January interview with MLive, Russ Collins, CEO and executive director of the Michigan Theater Foundation, remained optimistic about the theaters’ futures, while acknowledging it may take time for some to be comfortable attending in-person screenings.
“The reason that television and subsequently streaming and DVDs and all of those kind of things didn’t put an end to going out (to) the movies is not because you can watch something at home,” Collins said. “It’s about going out. There definitely is a future.”
Summer Managing Photo Editor Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.