Pride of Ownership

As the proud new owners of the Michigan Theater, the Michigan Theater Foundation celebrated the 80th anniversary of this beautifully preserved movie palace in grand style. 

From the deed transfer ceremony, to the fascinating details of a theater tour, to the festive atmosphere on the evening of January 5, 2008 (the anniversary date), a strong sense of pride and gratitude shone forth from both staff and patrons.

It all started Friday afternoon (January 4) on the sidewalk in front of the theater, when Ann Arbor Mayor John Heiftje presented Michigan Theater Board Chair Jean Rowan and Executive Director & CEO Russ Collins a ceremonial deed symbolizing the official building transfer from the city of Ann Arbor to the Michigan Theater Foundation.

The deed transfer, which was made official in 2007, will help fundraising for the theater because it will not be leasing and it can more strongly guarantee its future to donors.  The transfer was symbolized by an over-sized Monopoly card.

The transfer also honors the responsibility that the foundation has taken for the theater in the last 30 years.  That commitment has included the operation, maintenance and improvement of the theater after the city of Ann Arbor helped save the Michigan by purchasing it from the Poulos family that had owned the theater since it opened in 1928.

During the Friday ceremony, which included speeches in the Grand Foyer, you could feel surges of emotion, as people’s appreciation for the theater and its supporters reached new levels.  Russ Collins kept finding people in the crowd to thank for their assistance, not least of all, organist Henry Aldridge, who was a driving force in keeping the theater from being turned into a food court or parking garage in the late 1970s.

Behind the Scenes

On Saturday morning and afternoon, theater members were treated to a tour of many parts of the Michigan, including the stage area and projection booth.  Presenters included Russ Collins, Henry Aldridge, Annual Gifts/Membership Director Laura Barnes, Technical Director M. Scott Clarke, and Head Projectionist Walt Bishop.

For the participants, visits to the Michigan will never be the same, thanks to the wealth of background knowledge given by the tour presenters. Much of the magic of the Michigan comes from the decorative detail that dresses up what is basically a steel and concrete building.  And a lot more magic comes from applying modern touches (like digital projection) to an 80-year-old structure.

The tours touched on both technical details and the psychology of entertainment.  Russ Collins stressed that moviegoing is a social experience, which dovetails well with the community-based character of the theater. I found out that the best place for hearing a Michigan movie is the very last row of the main floor, where you don’t hear the echo bouncing off the back wall.  And I saw the different ways that movies are delivered to the screen (16, 35, and 70-millimeter projectors, and a digital projector that can use file downloads and DVDs).

Evening Celebration

The birthday party came to its climax Saturday evening, with the 1959 Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The 1920s setting of the movie added to the fun of the party, and laughter echoed throughout the theater (especially for the classic last line by Joe E. Brown). An added bonus was the 1928 Walt Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon starring Mickey Mouse.

Before the movie, a special catered reception was held in the Grand Foyer for the theater’s most generous donors.  During a speech before the movie, Russ Collins gave special recognition to theater donors and volunteers, who help keep operating and other costs down.  Russ was dressed in a tuxedo, as was organist Steven Ball, who ended his pre-movie concert with a rousing version of “Hooray for Hollywood”.

Lasting Power

In the time between the Saturday tours and the evening film, I took in the new movie The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep at the Goodrich Quality 16 on Jackson Road.  The Goodrich theaters (both in Ann Arbor and Canton Township) are my favorite mainstream movie houses, with their inexpensive matinees and concession refills.

Like most modern theaters, the Goodrich theaters surround you with comfort and stimulation. And if you’re seeing an entertaining movie like Water Horse, it can be a very fun experience.  It was interesting visiting the Quality 16 after filling my senses with the many fascinating details of the Michigan.

But as popular as the Goodrich and other theaters are, there is no guarantee that they will be around in 15-20 years.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that people were lining up at the Movies at Twelve Oaks or the Quo Vadis to see E.T. or Back to the Future.

But here is the Michigan Theater, still going strong after 80 years, still connecting with its community to provide the same variety of theater, music, and movies that it was presenting when it opened its doors on January 5, 1928.   

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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