Looking Forward from 1957

It sounds like an advertisement for Circuit City or Best Buy. But it’s really a perceptive prediction from an outstanding movie book that celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

In The Movies (1957), authors Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer look to the future in the concluding Epilogue:

“What was formerly man’s castle will have become his picture palace. Even in the home, however, there will be diversity: movies on old-fashioned television but with larger screens, stereophonic sound, and—who knows—maybe 3-D minus polaroid glasses, toll TV so that first-run pictures can be shown to those prepared to pay for the privilege, films transmitted via closed-circuit wire relayed for a fixed annual fee from the local movie house.”

It’s hard to summarize this book’s insightful observations about the modern movie scene of the mid-50’s—and how those observations echo concerns of today. So I’ll let the book speak for itself:

The first CinemaScope move The Robe “made a contribution to show history as memorable as that of The Jazz Singer twenty-six years previously. On the other hand it cannot be denied that the immense new screen militates against the intimacy and sense of personal involvement that marked the motion picture’s happiest moments in the past.”

“Will television kill the movies? Of course not, for television is movies too. All that can happen is the death of a system of production and exhibition which we have identified so long with the movies that we cannot imagine them produced and distributed otherwise.”

A quick search of the Internet reveals several different versions of this book, which I highly recommend. Particularly good are the informative, richly illustrated chapters about the silent film era.

The End of the Old Movie House

The final message of The Movies is a picture of the former Stoddard Theater in New York City, which had turned into the Garden Supermarket, whose marquee now advertised 10 tangerines for 25 cents and lunch sturgeon at 39 cents for a quarter pound.

An exception to this theater-closing trend occurred 50 years ago this month in Ann Arbor with the opening of the Campus Theatre on March 16, 1957. Unfortunately, the Campus replaced only one of two other Butterfield Theaters, Inc. theaters that were closed six days earlier—the Orpheum and Wuerth.

“Gerald H. Hoag, city manager of Butterfield Theaters, said that to his knowledge one theater has been built in the East and one in the West during the past 10 years,” wrote Ann Arbor News Building Editor Ralph Lutz on March 15, 1957. “These, however, exclude the open drive-in theaters which gained popularity during and after World War II.”

The Campus, at 1208 S. University (between Church and Forest), was located close to the University of Michigan campus and would focus on art house films like Lust for Life (its first movie), Oedipus Rex, and Edge of the City. It would try to draw UM students and employees who visited the Architectural Auditorium to see Cinema Guild movies like A Double Life (March 21, 1957) or An American in Paris (March 22).

The art film focus continued a trend in area movie programming that catered to moviegoers who yearned for international film or who enjoyed the less restricted treatment of sex in foreign language films (especially from France and Italy).

In Detroit in 1957, art houses included the Surf, Coronet, World, Studio, Krim, Dexter and Temple Art Cinema. In Saginaw, the manager of the Surf and Coronet (Al Dezel) opened two more art film theaters—the World Playhouse and the Guild Theater (Detroit Free Press, February 10, 1957). Dezel said that many Saginaw-area names had appeared on the Surf/Coronet mailing lists.

Anticipation built for the opening of the Campus.

“Completely new…styled for tomorrow…built to present the greater motion pictures of today at their very best…both audibly and visibly,” read an ad for the Campus in the March 12 Ann Arbor News.

The next day, another ad promoted the “Soft Subdued Lighting,” “Adjacent Parking Facilities,” “Newest Type Air-Conditioning,” and “Modern Tile Lounges.” The March 15 News article noted that “The Campus Theater has modern decor throughout and is devoid of the rococo style familiar in older movie emporiums.”

On Opening Day, a News ad from South University Merchants like Ulrich’s Book Store and the Brown Jug Coffee Shop said that “Congratulations are in order for our new neighbor W.S. Butterfield Theatres.”

And a full page ad in the News proclaimed, “Ushering In A New Era of Motion Picture Entertainment In The Ann Arbor Area!!! YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO ATTEND THE…[in large, ornate lettering] Grand Opening.” At the bottom of the ad were congratulations and best wishes from companies who helped construct the Campus (like the general contractor, the Henry W. deKoning Construction Co.).

So the Campus settled in with the Michigan and State to form the Butterfield Theaters movie chain in Ann Arbor. According to the 1992 book Motor City Marquees (by Stuart Galbraith IV), the Campus was later sold to the Illinois-based Kerasotes Theater circuit and closed on January 1, 1987. An image of the Campus can be seen in the Screening Room at the Michigan Theater.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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