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, initiated by active community involvement, nurtured by a unique mix of cultural programming and sustained by 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.

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. 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.

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 film scholar and theater organist Henry Aldridge and John Briggs, who was the president of the local stagehand union.  Two capital campaigns, spanning the years 1985 to 2002, 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.  The excellence of the MTF’s restoration and construction has resulted in many awards and articles about its restoration work and process.

In November 2013, MTF learned that the owners of the State Theatre in Ann Arbor were considering eliminating the film exhibition space on the second floor and converting it to office space.  MTF provided the film programming at the State for over 16 years and the relationship with the State provided programming flexibility for both theaters.  MTF also recognized that the State is historically and architecturally significant and, along with the Michigan, is an iconic symbol of Ann Arbor’s downtown streetscape.  The Michigan Theater began negotiations with the owners of the State and signed a purchase agreement in June 2014.  MTF is now entering a new chapter in historic preservation as many improvements are needed at the State in terms of accessibility issues, especially the installation of an elevator, and qualitative enhancements to transform the State Theatre from a well-used 1940s film theater into an outstanding 21st century digital cinema.  A multi-million dollar capital campaign is in progress for both the State and Michigan theaters.  MTF is thrilled by the opportunity to take on this community project that supports both the long tradition of independent film exhibition in Ann Arbor and the preservation of another historic landmark.

Today, the Michigan and State theaters are open 365 days a year and nearly 289,000 people attend events annually.  The MTF also boasts nearly 7,000 paid members.  In addition to its stewardship of the facility, the MTF’s programs include being a community gathering place  for organizations like the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, University Musical Society, The Ark, and University of Michigan departments and clubs; an exceptional film exhibition space and a venue for a variety of live-on-stage attractions like the Not Just for Kids series of children’s theater productions, concerts on the restored Barton Theater Organ, and silent-era films presented with live musical accompaniment.  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 Michigan and State theaters present the most extensive and diverse film program in Michigan.  Presented in the Historic Auditorium, the Screening Room and at the recently purchased State Theatre, 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, in partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is now the Detroit region’s exclusive International Film Festival.