A Shrine to Art
Businessman Angelo Poulos commissioned Detroit architect Maurice Finkel to design his dream: a grand vaudeville and movie palace in Ann Arbor. Finkel called it “a Shrine to Art. . . not built for today only, but constructed in the hopes that it might be a monument for years to come, and a credit to the community even when the city is many times its present size.”
A Movie Palace Is Born
Constructed and furnished by the W. S. Butterfield Company, which operated several motion picture and vaudeville theaters in the state of Michigan, the theater opened to the public on January 5, 1928. Here, ushers prepare for the evening.
Until the summer of 1929, Michigan events included vaudeville and silent films with live musical accompaniment from the Barton Theater Pipe Organ and Karl Weiderhold’s orchestra (shown here). The introduction of “talkies” resulted in the disbanding of the orchestra, the demise of vaudeville, and the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Talkies Era
In the 1930s and 1940s, the theater continued to be Ann Arbor’s premiere showplace for live stage entertainment, including national touring theater and opera companies, local community organizations, and University of Michigan events. The largest audiences, however, came for the movies.
Cross Channel Marketing
The ornate lobby proved an excellent showcase for sponsors’ products. These General Electric refrigerators represented the latest in icebox technology in 1933. Note the poster for Edward G. Robinson in The Little Giant in the background.
The 1950s and ’60s saw the increasing popularity of television – and decreasing film audiences. This 1951 photo shows a newer, less ornate marquee with a typical Hollywood offering of the time.
In 1956, the Butterfield Theater Company decided to “modernize” the Michigan Theater in an attempt to entice people away from their TVs. The intricate plaster work was covered by aluminum, polished marble, and a false ceiling. Note the changes to the front of the theater in this 1963 photo; the elegant façade has been covered with steel and glass.
End of an Era?
Though the Michigan survived through the 1970s, the advent of the multiplex cinema took its toll. The Butterfield Theater Company stopped operating the Michigan in 1979; the building’s future was “uncertain.” Here, organist Henry Aldridge gives young students what many thought would be a last glimpse of the Michigan Theater.
(Larry E. Wright, Ann Arbor News, February 11, 1979)
Saving the Michigan
Aldridge, members of the Motor City Theater Organ Society, and philanthropist Margaret D. Towsley prompted many to join the fight to save the organ and theater. In particular, then-Mayor Louis Belcher convinced a reluctant city council to purchase the theater and, in 1982, convinced area citizens to dissolve the theater’s mortgage debt.
In 1982, the Board hired a professional management team headed by Russell B. Collins (shown here in a later photograph), and later contracted with internationally renowned restoration architect Richard Frank, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, for a three-phase program of restoration and rehabilitation.
(Rodney Curtis, Ann Arbor News, September 8, 1989)
Live at the Michigan
A program of events to raise awareness and appreciation for the Theater began in 1983. An extensive series of classic films was presented almost daily. As in the theater’s heyday, live stage presentations, including concerts, theater productions, and touring shows, played once again on the Michigan’s stage. This 1989 ad shows a typical season.
In 1985, the Board elected Mrs. Towsley’s daughter, Judith Dow, as president of the organization. Under the leadership of Dow and her husband, Robert Alexander, phase two of the restoration was begun. The Grand Foyer and auditorium were restored, heating and electrical systems were modernized, and necessary backstage technical improvements were made.
The State Theater
In 1997, the owners of the nearby State Theater asked the management of the Michigan Theater to program and market the films in their two-screen theater, expanding the scope and range of our film programming capabilities. This 1955 photograph shows the State, formerly an art deco theater, prior to its modernization.
The final phase of the plan has allowed the Michigan to expand with a new screening room (pictured here), concession area, restrooms, and office space. Additionally, the balcony was restored to its 1928 original appearance, a wonderful improvement over the bizarre color scheme – dingy blue, dull ivory, battleship gray, and orange – imposed upon it during the 1950s.
The Michigan Theater Today
Today, the Michigan Theater continues to be an essential part of Ann Arbor’s cultural fabric. Presenting specialty films, serving as home to the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, and offering the Not Just for Kids series of live-on-stage programs for children and families, the Michigan remains “a Shrine to Art. . . and a credit to the community.”