I’ve always enjoyed escaping into the Michigan Theater for its refreshing atmosphere and entertainment, but never more than on July 18, 2008, when I visited the Ann Arbor Art Fairs. Without the cool spaciousness of the Michigan, the art fairs would have been a weary test of endurance, instead of a wide variety of mid-summer activities and entertainments.
During the art fair, the Michigan opens its doors to visitors who want to listen to the mighty sounds of the Barton theater organ; take a tour of the theater; enjoy a hot dog, bratwurst, or beverage; or just gaze around at the magnificent architecture of this 80-year old movie palace.
I dropped in several times at the Michigan during my long afternoon at the fair. I first stopped in to grab some lunch. In the lobby, a young lady enthusiastically advertised some cold beer. Tables were covered with movie posters and still photographs that the public could buy. The concession stand was open, selling lunch food like hot dogs along with its usual popcorn and candy.
In the Grand Foyer, tables were set up where people could relax with their food and drink. Many young visitors in baby carriages (and probably many others) got their first look at the Michigan. I settled down with my food in the main theater, where Henry Aldridge was informally demonstrating some of the features of the Barton organ. A smooth rendition of “Over the Rainbow” brought happy comments of recognition from some of the visitors.
Later, I attended a 1:30 p.m. organ concert by Steve Warner, one of the regular organists at the theater. In between songs, he spoke to the audience, talking about how his father’s interest in old recordings and phonographs helped inspire Steve to become a theater organist and get University of Michigan degrees in both music and engineering (so he could both play and work on theater organs).
Steve mentioned that a lot of the instrumentation of the Barton is “shoe-horned” into the Michigan because the design of the theater was changed twice after the designs for the organ were sent to the Bartola Musical Instrument Company (the sounds of the organ come from instruments behind the walls of the theater). He concluded his presentation with excerpts from Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus, in one of the most impressive uses of the Barton that I have ever heard.
After the fun of the organ concert, I did the bulk of my art fair exploring. I like to stroll the sidewalk side of the displays, where you can still see a lot of the art, along with the creative sidewalk sales of the local businesses. I enjoyed many varieties of music, including classical, African, Latin, and something that seemed to range across Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, and punk rock.
Like many others, I just floated through the energetic and spontaneous atmosphere. This was the mid-summer relaxation that we dream about during the cold, dreary days of January and February. My artistic discoveries included the beautiful architecture of the law school quadrangle, which I never knew existed, after driving by the outside of it many times.
At the Movies
I made one more trip to the Michigan, for the kind of event that first attracted me to the theater—a motion picture. Late afternoon showings were scheduled in both the main theater and screening room. When I sat down in the screening room for a 4:45 p.m. showing of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the silence in the well-tuned acoustics of that theater seemed almost like the “loud quiet” that you experience when you drive through an underpass in a heavy rainstorm.
Which meant that the art fair had done its job in stimulating my senses, and the Michigan had done its job in making me forget about the outside world. After watching this delightful comedy, my day was complete. I slowly walked out of the Michigan, taking in a living work of art that is on display every day of the year.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.