More than 30 years ago, Eastern Michigan University professor Henry Aldridge helped educate the Ann Arbor community about the value of the Michigan Theater, which faced an uncertain future after the Butterfield Theater Company stopped operating the Michigan in 1979.
The efforts of Henry, Ann Arbor mayor Louis Belcher, donor Margaret Towsley, and other film and theater enthusiasts helped save the Michigan, which observed its 85th anniversary on January 5, 2013.
Recently, Henry educated Michigan Theater patrons about some of the many films that have been screened at the Michigan and other theaters. He hosted four presentations on the history of American film that drew about 150 movie lovers.
Movies 201 kicked off on January 20, 2013, with a discussion of cameras and projectors. Henry, who also plays organ at the Michigan, chose to focus the course on technological changes in film. He noted that he also could have focused on the growth of film as an art form; economic history; biographies; or social history. Each presentation was enhanced by photographs and movie excerpts, along with one feature film.
Here are excerpts from Henry’s presentations, which were held in the Screening Room of the Michigan:
Cameras and Projectors (January 20, 2013)
Feature: The General (1927)
“Still photography begins in the early 19th century and still photography becomes a very sophisticated art form by the 20th century. All the knowledge about exposure, about film stock, about lenses, about apertures opening up, depth of field, about lighting, all of these things that early filmmakers depended on came out of still photography.
“One of the important moments in the evolution of still photography was the development of the snapshot. In other words, the ability to record a usable image, without blurring, in a split second.
“What this did was, it enabled the photographer to show people moving, caught in a moment of movement, and if you look at a snapshot from the 1880’s, you see people walking down the street, and one leg is in the air and the other’s going like that [motions to show leg movement]. Whereas before, what you had were photographs that could only be exposed over a period of time. Everybody looks rigid and fixed. They’re lying on the ground or it’s a landscape.
“But the snapshot made it possible to stop movement as it’s going along and that, according to some people, got motion pictures started. People began to get curious. What does it mean when a bird flies past and exactly what are the wings doing? When a horse gallops along, are all its hooves off the ground at the same time? And so you began to move into sequenced still photography.”
Sound (January 27, 2013)
Feature: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
“Talking films are basically a marriage of silent movies and radio, if you want to think about it that way. So why did it take so long? Movies had been around since the 1890’s. Were the folks stupid? Did they not want sound?
“Of course they wanted sound. There just wasn’t any good way to do it. There were ways to do it, but they didn’t work too well. One of the problems was synchronization. How do you keep speeches and pictures together? They have to be precisely together in order for the illusion to work. If you’re just playing background music, you can be off with the synchronization sightly, as silent film accompanists know all too well.
“But when you’re talking, you have to have the mouth moving exactly as the words are being spoken. Do you remember the wonderful scene from Singin’ in the Rain where the Vitaphone system gets off with the picture? Well, that’s done for humorous purposes, but that could have happened. There was not a way to synchronize the image reliably every time.
“There were also limited ways of amplifying the sound. We’re talking about putting sound into a big movie theater the size of the Fox in Detroit. You’ve got to have a lot of power to make enough sound so that people can hear it in the back row.”
Widescreen and 3D (February 10, 2013)
Feature: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
“CinemaScope uses what’s called an anamorphic lens, and anamorphic—I looked it up—it means ‘to change the shape of.’ Anamorphic lenses essentially squeezed the image horizontally, so you’re looking at that much [motions to show a width] and it reduces it down to [motions to show a smaller width] so that you take the wide image and squeeze it on down on to a 35-millimeter piece of film.
“And then Walt [Bishop, the Michigan Theater projectionist] simply throws up that widescreen image in the standard 35-millimeter projector and shows it through the projector with the same lens on the front, and voilà, it opens back out again. You put more information on to the piece of film so therefore you can open it up and spread it over a wider area and you haven’t lost any quality.
“Just about everybody went for that system. Fox was the one that introduced it in the film The Robe in 1953. Everybody went for it except Paramount, which developed its own system called VistaVision. When you photograph the film, you run the film through sideways through the camera rather than vertically. You say, what difference does that make? Well think about it, you’ve got a little more height, but you’ve got all the width that you want, so VistaVision works by just simply turning the film on its side.”
Digital Filmmaking (February 17, 2013)
Feature: Jurassic Park (1993)
“Analog technology means that you’ve simply converted the source into an analogy, into a different medium, but it often physically resembles it in a certain way, like the image on the film looks like the thing photographed, the grooves in the phonograph move in the same way that the dynamics of the musically originally did.
“Digital is a different technology altogether. What it does is it takes that analog signal, samples it, and converts it into numbers. It takes the values and converts them into a mathematical equivalent that doesn’t look like the real thing and it doesn’t contain quite all the information of the real thing. It’s a sample of the original, it’s an approximation of the original and if you use the binary system, then what you get is a stream of numbers, ones and zeroes, that give you the values in the original signal.”
Happy 85th Birthday
Henry also educated his audience about the Michigan, which held a big 85th anniversary celebration on January 31, 2013. That event also honored 30 years of service by theater Executive Director/CEO Russ Collins, as well as the 40th anniversary of the restoration of the theater’s original Barton Theatre Pipe Organ. Another highlight of the evening was the world premiere showing of The East, a film also screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
At the February 17th session of Movies 201, Henry listed some important accomplishments in the last 30 years of the Michigan Theater:
- The restoration of the auditorium and the Grand Foyer to their original appearance.
- An increased emphasis on independent films.
- The 1999 opening of the Screening Room. This auditorium allows the theater to continue showing movies when the main auditorium is used for live events.
- An award from the League of Historic American Theatres in 2006.
- Involvement in the Art House Convergence project of the Sundance Institute, which runs the Sundance Film Festival.
“We are so lucky to have the Michigan Theater here because most places don’t,” Henry noted. “And this is a wonderful opportunity for us to see films and to do little courses like this and other things. We’re very, very fortunate that a whole series of things worked out to make this possible over a period of time and we’re very lucky to have it here.”
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.