Hanging gracefully of the entrance on East William Street, a large marquee of yellow and white lights displays the shows and events running for the day at the Michigan Theater. Names such as “Cowboy Bebop” are just as likely as “Lord of the Rings” to shine above the pavement.
The wooden box office outside is staffed by just one or two attendants wearing traditional red vests, white shirts and black pants. The tickets are not the fancy computerized ones you’d find at most chain movie theaters. You won’t find the date, rating or even the name of the show on your ticket. Instead you’ll be handed what looks like it came from the fair or from a game of skeeball. There is just one concession stand selling all the traditional amenities required for the proper movie going experience – candy, sodas and popcorn, with real butter.
Two majestic staircases ascend to the balcony level from the grand foyer. Slightly over a third of the movie-goers in the main theater sit in the balcony. The lights begin to dim and as the theater darkens, the screen lights up as you situate yourself in one of the 1,700 cushioned seats.
Unlike the flashy multiplexes that dominate many local movie listings, the entertainment at the Michigan Theater begins once the moviegoer walks in the door. The ambience of the theater draws in the patrons and holds them longer than the film.
Why has this theater with just two screens won the Best of Ann Arbor Best Movie Theater Award so consistently?
“I think a lot of it has to do with the venue here,” Amelia Martin, house manager at the Michigan Theater, said. “When you come to the Michigan Theater, it is not just about the movies, it is about the experience. It’s about walking in the doors and you feel like you are in this luxurious, magical place. You look up and the ceilings are gold and you feel like you are in this wonderful magical place. It becomes less about what you are doing and more about the experience of being here.”
Built in 1928 as a movie palace, the Michigan Theater operates in 2003 by continuing the traditions upon which it was founded. With daily shows, performances by bands from major labels and a smattering of shows performed by University students, the Michigan Theater’s variety is as unique as the building itself.
Film as art
Some students may be timid when they do not recognize the names displayed on the marquee. They haven’t heard of these films and the prospect of subtitles is too much to handle. The so-called “artsy films” may seem imposing, but the Michigan Theater makes it easy for any moviegoer to step outside his or her comfort sphere of a normal weekend blockbuster.
The Michigan Theater has long prided itself on displaying the types of movies you won’t find anywhere else. These artsy films, include “Gerry,” a recent film by Gus Van Sant, staring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon.
While such high profile celebrities would generally attract a lot of attention, the travels in the desert of the two include little dialogue and the movie was panned by most critics. This did not deter the programmers at the Michigan Theater, though. Martin said they “were proud” to have taken the risk and aired the film.
Posters from movies such as “Secretary,” and other films that have slipped under the radar of the public scene, deck the walls of Martin’s office. The Michigan Theater has remained committed to showing these films as an outlet for art in Ann Arbor.
Right up the street from the Michigan Theater is another on of Ann Arbor’s popular cinemas, the State Theater. While the Michigan and Sate Theaters are separate businesses, they do have a connection. In 1997 the management of the Michigan Theater was asked by the owners of the State Theater to help program and market the theater.
While the programming of the State Theater falls under the province of the Michigan Theater, the two do not always show the same type of films.
The differences in programming are a result of the different crowds that visit the theaters. With the immensely popular midnight shows, the State Theater is able to attract a very different crowd than those who go to the Michigan Theater to see the more artsy films. Martin said that more students go to the State Theater and it has its own style.
“The State Theater has a different feel than the Michigan Theater,” Martin said. “It has its own personality. It is a more funky environment.”
With the palatial feel and wide variety of films and shows, it is no wonder that the Michigan Theater was once again voted the best theater.