Michigan Theater Foundation Organizational History
The story of the historic Michigan Theater is an example of a community’s vision, creativity, and determination succeeding over the bleakness of decline, indifference, and decay. It is a drama of successful rebirth, conceived through active community involvement, nurtured by a unique mix of cultural programming and brought to maturity through dynamic community support.
Opened in 1928, the Michigan Theater was hailed as “a Shrine to the Arts… 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…” Detroit architect Maurice Finkel designed an outstanding silent film exhibition theater appropriate for a town with a world-class university at its core. The Michigan Theater contained a fully functioning stage, a sizable orchestra pit, an elaborate Barton theater organ, grand lobbies and over 1,700 seats, all designed around its core capability of being a theater intended for film exhibition. In its early days, the theater was operated as a commercial vaudeville and movie house with occasional national touring theater and other performing arts attractions. Additionally, rare circumstances would allow productions by local arts and civic organizations to play the Michigan’s stage.
Operated by the Butterfield Theatre Corporation and under the management of Jerry Hoag, from 1928 to 1974, the Michigan was a top producer for the Butterfield chain. With the advent of television, one by one the traditional single screen movie theaters around town were either closed or divided to accommodate more screens, in an effort to become more economically viable. Since the Michigan was not subdivided, its commercial prospects faltered and by the mid-1970s the Michigan Theater was gradually being demolished by neglect.
Over the years, most significantly in 1956, Butterfield made renovations to the theater’s interior and façade to update it to the tastes of “modern” audiences. This resulted in the grand movie palace design being covered up and painted over. Green marble paneling and a drop ceiling were added to cover the ornate plaster work in the lobby. The Grand Foyer and the historic auditorium were painted in an ivory, grey, slate blue, and orange color scheme, obliterating the intricate gilt work of the decorative plaster. The Butterfield Theatre Corporation vacated the building at the conclusion of their 50 year lease in 1979. Future plans for the building included gutting the interior and turning the space into a food court and retail center in an effort to revitalize the sagging downtown economy.
Dr. Henry Aldridge, a film scholar, theater organist and community activist, Ann Arbor’s dynamic mayor, Lou Belcher, and philanthropist Margaret D. Towsley assembled a diverse group of Michigan Theater lovers to preserve this unique example of architectural Americana. They centered their strategy on what they felt were the three most vital reasons why the Michigan should be saved: 1) the Barton Theater Organ was a remarkable instrument and one of the very few in the country still in its original home, 2) the theater had a full stage, and 3) it was the only civic auditorium in the city not owned by an educational institution. Mayor Belcher gathered city council support and eventually helped secure a one-time millage for the city to purchase the building.
The not-for-profit Michigan Theater Foundation (MTF) was formed in May of 1979. The theater doors opened and the programming occurred solely because of a team of dedicated community volunteers, led by Henry Aldridge and John Briggs, who was the president of the local stagehand union.
The volunteers who rallied to save the Michigan faced many difficulties. As mentioned earlier, the theater was being destroyed by neglect and its role as a community arts venue was not clearly defined. In 1980, the Board contracted with Richard Frank, an internationally renowned restoration architect and a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects, to prepare a rehabilitation plan for the building. After gathering broad community input, Mr. Frank and his architectural team devised a plan that called for a three-phase program of restoration and rehabilitation. The board grew, gained confidence and began to see a future. In 1982 they hired Russ Collins as Executive Director and together – board and staff – developed a long-term strategic plan for the Michigan Theater to solidify its role in the cultural scene of Ann Arbor, to make much needed facility upgrades and to begin to restore the theater to its former glory.
Two capital campaigns projects led by Judy Dow Rumelhart (1985-1987) and Ambassador Ron Weiser (1997-2002) both earning Kresge Challenge Grants, led to a spectacular restoration of the Historic Auditorium and lobbies plus the addition of the 200-seat Screening Room, new restrooms and office space. Using nationally accepted professional standards, all restoration work was designed by qualified restoration architects and contractors conforming to U.S. Interior Department standards for architectural restoration. The excellence of the MTF’s restoration and construction has resulted in many awards and articles about its restoration work and process.
The MTF has evolved to become a key economic and cultural anchor in Ann Arbor. In 2006, the League of Historic American Theatres named the MTF its “Outstanding Historic Theater” and the Sundance Institute chose the MTF as one of 12 founding members of its Art House Project. In 2008 the city of Ann Arbor transferred the building deed from the city to the MTF in recognition of the organization’s outstanding restoration, management and operation of the property. The strength of the organizations capacity was acknowledged in 2010 when MTF received $1.0 million Institutional Capitalization grant from the Kresge Foundation; 141 applications from across the country were submitted, MTF was one of only nine organizations awarded.
Today, the MTF is open 365 days a year and over 230,000 people attend events annually. The MTF also boasts over 5,500 paid members. In addition to its stewardship of the facility, the MTF’s programs include being a community gathering place, an exceptional film exhibition space and a venue for a variety of live-on-stage attractions. This combination of community service, media arts and performance programs is arguably unparalleled anywhere in diversity, quality and scope – especially for a market the scale of the Ann Arbor area.
The MTF presents the most extensive and diverse film program in Michigan. Presented in the Historic Auditorium, Screening Room and at the nearby State Theater (via a programming contract), films include classic, contemporary foreign, documentary, student, American independent and silent-era films. The MTF is one of the few exhibitors in the country that can present films in a wide range of celluloid and digital cinema formats including 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, celluloid 3D and high quality, high definition digital formats, all with state-of-the-art sound systems. In 2012, MTF initiated a regional film festival, the Cinetopia International Film Festival, which expanded to Detroit in 2013. Cinetopia focuses on feature length, story-based films – dramas, comedies and documentary films that have screened at the world’s best film festivals. The theater was recently awarded a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of 56 winners out of over 1,400 applicants, as part of the foundation’s Detroit Arts Challenge program to continue the expansion of Cinetopia in Detroit.
Annually, the MTF hosts over 100 live attractions including a variety of professional, community and university-based classical, rock, jazz, folk, Broadway, dance and theatrical presentations. It’s Not Just for Kids series of children’s theater productions, concerts on the restored Barton Theater Organ and series of silent-era films presented with live musical accompaniment are now community traditions.
Outstanding performance characteristics make the Historic Auditorium a worthy home for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra as well as events presented by the world-renowned University Musical Society, The Ark, the Michigan Pops Orchestra, the Ann Arbor Concert Band, the Dandia Dhamaka dance competition and the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series.
The MTF also presents in partnership with commercial promoters a Legends of Rock and Roll and an Ann Arbor Conversations series. A select list of artists who have appeared in the last few years include: Joan Baez, Anthony Bourdain, David Byrne, Tracy Chapman, Jeff Daniels, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Grizzly Bear, Herbie Hancock, B. B. King, Morrissey, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, The Pretenders, David Sedaris, Kevin Smith, Mavis Staples, Brian Wilson, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt, Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne, Great Big Sea, John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, Levon Helm, Pat Metheny, Ben Harper, Civil Wars, Glen Hansard, Joe Jackson, and Iggy Pop.
Detroit Arts Challenge, 2013. Awarded funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to further expand the Cinetopia International Film Festival in Detroit. MTF was one of 56 organizations awarded funding out of over 1,400 applicants.
Indiewire Influencer, 2013. Executive Director Russell B. Collins was recognized by Indiewire, the leading news, information, and social networking site for the international independent film community, as one of their 2013 Indiewire Influencers. The Indiewire Influencers list recognizes 40 The recognizes 40 individuals and organizations from across the country that are shaping the future of the independent film industry. Indiewire also recognized that the Michigan Theater is “one of the nation’s most prestigious movie venues
Kresge Foundation Institutional Capitalization Grant, 2010. MTF was awarded a $1.0 million Institutional Capitalization grant from the Kresge Foundation; 141 applications from across the country were submitted, MTF was one of only nine organizations awarded. MTF successfully met the $1.0 million match by raising over $1.0 million in donations from the community. The purpose of the grant and matching funds is to establish an initial $2.0 million Building Reserve Fund which will be used to ensure the long term sustainability of the facility and physical structure of the historic Michigan Theater.
Sundance Festival USA, 2010-2013. Selected as an official venue of the Sundance Film Festival. The MTF was one of eight venues across the nation selected for this honor. Other cities selected for this honor include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. Ann Arbor is the smallest city of those selected and the MTF is the largest venue participating
Ambassador Award, 2007. Presented by the Ann Arbor Conventions and Visitors Bureau, for serving as a cultural ambassador to the southeastern Michigan area.
Finalist, Governor’s Award for Arts & Culture, 2007. Presented by ArtServe Michigan, the “Guuvy’s” are Michigan’s highest Arts Honor which recognizes outstanding support of arts and culture in Michigan.
Outstanding Historic Theatre, 2006. Presented by the League of Historic American Theatres for outstanding historic preservation. This singular award praised our sustained high standards of excellence in vision, execution and service. It also recognized the impact of the theater’s programs and services to the community.
State History Award and Outstanding Preservation and Restoration Award, 2005. Presented by the Historical Society of Michigan for outstanding renovation and preservation efforts.
Great Lakes Community Arts Award, 2005. Presented by the Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies in celebration of outstanding commitment to arts and culture in Michigan.
Michigan Society of Architects Award of Honor, 1987. For excellence in restoration and renovation.
Commended by the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, 2005 and 2006. For faithfully respecting the historic qualities and character of the building and insuring its continued enjoyment by the residents of Michigan and for the permanent installation of the Ford Gallery of Ann Arbor History in the Michigan Theater.
Consistently voted “Best Place to See A Movie” or “Best Movie Theater” by the readers of The Ann Arbor News, America On Line, The Michigan Daily and Current Entertainment Monthly, as well as being the winner of the WDIV-TV “Vote 4 the Best” Best Indie Theater award.