Michigan History

On a cold, blustery night a few days before Thanksgiving, Ann Arbor movie and movie theater lovers gathered at the downtown Ann Arbor main library to hear a speech about a new history of the Michigan Theater that was written by someone who helped preserve this enduring movie palace.

On November 25, 2013, Henry Aldridge, Emeritus Professor of Electronic Media and Film Studies at Eastern Michigan, talked about this new book, which is available at the Michigan Theater and area bookstores. The book is both by and about Henry, who helped lead a campaign in the late 1970s to preserve the theater after plans were considered by the theater’s owners to convert the Michigan to retail space.

Michigan Theater Book Cover

Michigan Theater Book Cover

Ironically, history is repeating itself right now with the State Theater down the street from the Michigan. The State’s owners are considering a new use for the second story twin theaters that are the remaining part of the original State. The Michigan programs the movies at the State and has launched a campaign to save it.

Everyone involved in this effort to preserve alternative film and historic theater architecture in downtown Ann Arbor will find plenty of ideas and inspiration in this new book about the Michigan, which describes in detail the financial and volunteer commitments that were needed to save the Michigan.

Among the many discoveries in the new book about the Michigan are photographs that Henry made of the original State Theater, including the main floor which is now a retail area.

Below are Henry’s opening remarks during his November 25 speech at the library:

“So let’s talk about what we tried to accomplish with this book, the title of which is The Michigan Theater: Ann Arbor’s Home for Fine Film and the Performing Arts Since 1928. I wrote the bulk of it, but Russ Collins played a very important part because Russ read the manuscript and clarified a lot of issues for me, and it was his idea to begin with, so Russ is the Executive Director of the Michigan Theater, and I like to say if there’s anything wrong with the book, it’s all his fault [laughter], so blame him for it, it’s not my doing.

“But Russ gave me the idea for doing it about five years ago. My department head Dennis Beagen at Eastern Michigan University gave me release time, which doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means we got out of one course a semester, not the whole semester off. We did that for a few semesters. So I’m deeply grateful to Dennis and my colleagues at Eastern for making this possible.

“Let’s talk about the purpose of the project. What were we trying to do in writing a book about the Michigan Theater? It’s really about more than just the Michigan Theater. If you look at books about movie theaters, what you discover is there’s not very many of them. Secondly, the books that do exist are largely picture books without a whole lot of text.

“So what we were really trying to do was to take one theater and write a comprehensive history of that one theater and place it into the development of American film history, film exhibition precisely, and also in the context of local film exhibition. In other words, the Michigan Theater is one of many theaters in Ann Arbor, and what happened to it happened in lots of other communities and it is also a good example of what happened to film exhibition throughout the country. So it’s a kind of a case study at the local level.

“Now also we had a lot of documents that we wanted to organize and put in one place and so we gathered those together and created an archive at the Michigan Theater itself, which supplements a lot of materials at the Bentley [Historical Library at the University of Michigan].

“Let me give you a bit about the context of this study, and this will be familiar to [audience members] John and Matt and several other people out here who’ve taken film courses. The film industry is usually defined as having three parts—production, distribution, and exhibition, and this is a study in the area of film exhibition, meaning the theaters, the place where you interface with the movies. The traditional emphasis of film scholarship has been on production.

“If you go up to the [University of Michigan] grad library, and look at all the books about movies, they’re usually about how movies are made, or studies of narrative structure, or studies of the careers of directors. Very little has been written about exhibition, and even less has been written about distribution. So we’re trying to emphasize a part of film scholarship that really hasn’t been talked about very much.

“One of the things that fascinates me is the history of film exhibition, in other words, the theaters themselves, how they have changed over the years, why they are what they are, what has happened to them, and what is likely to happen to them in the future. Now, you really believe that this is an area that is open for primary research.

“I have a wonderful film history class at the moment that [audience member] Frank is in, and one of the things that we do is assign them a theater, and say, go out and research the history of this particular theater. Go out and find out what you can about one individual theater. Go and photograph it. Go and look up what it ran. Go and visit the site if you possibly can.

“Because we know very, very little about how the theaters developed. So that’s one of the purposes for this book, is to try to give you a good look at one particular theater, and hopefully it will encourage other scholars to go out and do likewise with other theaters.”

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Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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