Fun History at the Michigan Theater

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Every month, when I write the Looking Back feature, I pleasurably suffer through many decisions about what to include from my notes.  It’s also difficult to pick facts from the fascinating daily history of each Detroit Movie Palace when I scan microfilm records of old Ann Arbor and Detroit newspapers.

My wanderings have produced some leftover facts about the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.  In 1931, Michigan Theater ads in the movie section of the Ann Arbor Daily News had a snappy kick:

  • “Bump off your blues and put your worries on the spot” (Mr. Lemon of Orange, with El Brendel and Fifi D’Orsay, May 3-6)
  • “The thrilling story of a gangster’s final fade-out” (The Last Parade, with Jack Holt, May 7-9)
  • “A swell talkie of hoboes and heart-throbs!” (The Prodigal, starring Lawrence Tibbett, May 14-16)

On April 9-11, 1931, Paul Tompkins, “star organist of the Lowes, Inc. string of houses in the East,” sat in at the Michigan Theater organ.  “In the first place, the Michigan has a really wonderful instrument in its Barton,” wrote Alison Ind in the “Stage and Screen” column of the Ann Arbor Daily News. “In the second place, there isn’t any combination of apparatus, effects, money or all three, that can give through a talkie speaker the true music of a good organ well played.”

On March 31, 1956, the Michigan presented a re-issue of the controversial 1946 Walt Disney movie Song of the South.  In the Ann Arbor News ad, the Uncle Remus character proclaims, “I’m painting all Ann Arbor with the glorious colors of happy entertainment for a Joyous Easter.”

Visitors to the Michigan on May 16-19, 1956 would have paid 50 cents (matinee) or 80 cents (evening) to see Alec Guinness in The Prisoner, along with the Blue Ribbon cartoon Mixed Master and the Technicolor featurette Picture Parade.

In 1956, Ann Arbor art film lovers visited the Orpheum (326 S. Main Street), which often screened older French language films that starred attractive actresses.  That year, the Orpheum hosted Le Plaisir (1952), Adorable Creatures (1952, with Martine Carol and Dannielle Darrieux), 1952′s Mademoiselle Globette (“The naughty lady of Moulin Rouge”) and films starring the comedian Fernandel, The Red Inn (1951) and The Sheep has Five Legs (1954).

Fast forward 25 years to 1981. The Michigan, which had barely avoided closure two years earlier, is aggressively programming a variety of older English and foreign language films.  On Wednesday, July 22, the theater presented four Sherlock Holmes movies: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Woman in Green (1945), Dressed to Kill (1946) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).  The next day, you could have enjoyed a 12-hour marathon of Three Stooges comedies (noon to midnight).

In 1981, an adult ticket to the Michigan was two dollars, with kids getting in for one dollar.  A newspaper coupon cut the adult price in half.  However, ads and articles in the Ann Arbor News for these newfangled videocassettes presented new challenges for all movie theaters.

But the threat of television was nothing new.  The entertainment pages of 1956 newspapers included many ads for TV repair services.  And on April 13, 1931, the Ann Arbor Daily News began a series of articles titled, “Looking Ahead with Television”.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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