Historic Detroit

Michigan Theatre

Generations of Detroiters used to park their seats under the jaw-dropping ornate plasterwork and opulence of a downtown movie palace. Today, they park their cars there.

The 4,038-seat Michigan Theatre was designed in the French Renaissance style in 1925 and was simply unrivaled in Detroit in elegance at the time. The Michigan was built at Bagley and Cass avenues at a cost of more than $3.5 million ($42.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation) and was the only Detroit theater designed by renowned architects Cornelius W. and George L. Rapp. The theater was the Rapp brothers’ third largest, and it, and the 13-story Michigan Building office tower that it is connected to, would open in 1926.

The majestic Michigan

The original plan was for the office tower to be called the Metropolitan Building, not to be confused with the Neo-Gothic gem on John R. Street. The theater was to be named the Chicago. These names were tossed out in March 1925, about the same time that wreckers were beginning demolition to make way for the Michigan. Razed were the St. Denis Hotel, a gas station, restaurant, blacksmith shop, employment bureau, Detroit Creamery Co. warehouse, the Mantle Tile & Grate Co. and other structures. The theater’s owners, the Detroit Properties Corp., decided to go with the more appropriately named Michigan Building and Michigan Theatre.

The Michigan complex was the first piece in an ambitious program planned for Bagley Avenue and sponsored by the Stormfeltz-Loveley real estate company. The other two key pieces were the United Artists Theatre and the 22-story Detroit-Leland Hotel. Before the Michigan Theatre rose in 1926, the eastern end of Bagley was “a wide, unkempt thoroughfare with nondescript buildings lining most of its length,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in January 1928. “The growth of business on that part of Bagley avenue that has been touched by the magic of enterprise - that has felt the guiding hands of this far-seeing group, these public-spirited citizens - is one of Detroit’s commercial marvels. … The average native Detroiter believes that it is quite natural for unusual things to be the usual in Detroit, but this great investment in such an undeveloped district made him wonder.”

The theater was run by the Balaban & Katz group of Chicago in affiliation with Detroit’s first theater tycoon, John H. Kunsky. It would be Kunsky’s flagship in his empire of theaters. The Michigan Theatre opened Aug. 23, 1926, with the film “You Never Know Women” with Florence Vidor and Lowell Sherman. The opening was the same day that one of the silent screen’s biggest stars, Rudolph Valentino, died at age 31 of peritonitis caused by a perforated ulcer. Kunsky was known as a risk-taker, and he bet that the Michigan’s opulence and grand opening would be a big enough draw to allow him to open his new theater with the lesser film while putting Valentino’s last film, “The Son of the Sheik,” at his much smaller Adams Theatre down the street. “That way, a lot of customers would come to Kunsky houses twice. To the Adams to see the screen’s greatest lover. To the Michigan, to see an eye-popping playhouse,” the Detroit News wrote in November 1970.

“It is not merely a theatre for Detroit,” Kunsky told The Detroiter in August 1926. “It is a theatre for the whole world. It is designed to be the great showplace of the middle west.”

The Free Press’ review of the theater’s opening showed Kunsky was a man of his word: “It is beyond the dreams of loveliness; entering, you pass into another world. Your spirit rises and soars along the climbing pillars and mirrored walls that ascend five stories to the dome of the great lobby. It becomes gay and light under the warm coloring that plays across the heavily carved and ornamental walls as myriads of unseen lights steal out from mysteriously hidden coves to illume the interior with romantic sundown colors.”

R.J. McLaughlin’s review in the Detroit Daily News described the theater as “a new jewel to Detroit … bound to have its historic value in the city, for another such theatre is not likely to be built while the memory of this is yet green.” Ella H. McCormick wrote in the Free Press that the Michigan is “heralded as the world’s finest. … No one will dispute these assertions after having seen this magnificent building, with its opulence in decorative art … its thousand and one features planned for the complete enjoyment of patrons.”

The theater was loaded in extravagant details, from its auditorium to its four-story, 1,000-square-foot, mirror-paneled, black-and-white checkered-floor Grande Lobby. The lobby was complete with columns and red velvet hangings, marble archways, lavish towering columns, baskets of flowers and large crystal chandeliers. A lovely wide staircase with carved balustrades and covered in lush red carpet stood at the other end. A grand piano entertained guests waiting for the movie to start. Between every pair of columns was an oil painting, works of art by the National Academy, such as Thomas Hovenden’s “The Story of the Hunt,” Douglas Volk’s “Puritan Girl” and Edwin Blashfield’s “A Modern Rebecca.” All of the sculptures, busts, intricately carved furnishings, paintings and onyx pedestals filling the Michigan’s lobby made it seem as much a museum as a movie theater.

The mezzanine level was initially reserved for black-tie invited guests and had gilded foyers and subdued lighting and also was decorated with paintings. There also were luxurious lounges and “cosmetic rooms” for women and “retiring rooms” for men. A large replica of a fifth-century Roman sculpture depicting a horse and chariot stood there. It was said that ushers often had to shoo the kids who climbed into the “driver’s seat.” This horse and chariot, a replica of a sculpture in the Sala Della Biga (the Hall of the Chariot) at the Vatican, is believed to have been the largest sculpture in any U.S. movie palace. Another large sculpture, “Cupid and Psyche,” was a replica of a work by 18th-century artist Antonio Canova.

The huge auditorium featured six aisles of seats on each level, side boxes, 10-foot crystal chandeliers dangling eight floors above the seats below, a stage with orchestra pit and a 5/28 Wurlitzer organ that could be raised to the stage. Because films were silent until 1928, conductor Eduard Werner’s Michigan Symphony Orchestra and the 2,500-pipe Wurlitzer would set the moods for movies. At the time it opened, the Free Press wrote that the Michigan’s stage was so large, it “could house a circus.” Indeed, it continued, the stage could “accommodate the most colossal stage production likely to ever be required.” While that was a little 1920s hyperbole, one opening night beholder still described the theater as “a castle of dreams and an ocean of seats,” the Detroit News Magazine wrote in September 1968.

The theater opened with five shows daily, starting at 10:30 every morning. The usual shows consisted of a concert by the orchestra, two 20-minute stage shows, singers and dancers and then a film. “And with a policy of any seat in the theatre for the same price, and prices ranging from 35 cents to 75 cents according to the time of day … it is expected that the theatre will be filled to capacity constantly,” The Detroiter wrote in August 1926.

Stars like the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Louis Armstrong, Red Skelton, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Doris Day, the Dorsey Brothers and Bette Davis all appeared on the Michigan’s stage. But by the late 1940s, changing times led the Michigan to focus mostly on movies.

Second fiddle to a chimp

One of the more memorable stories involving the Michigan and its stars involved Bob Hope. On one of Hope’s early visits to the theater, he said he thought he was headlining. He said he walked around to the front of the theater and found himself second-billed on the marquee to an actor named Joe Mendi.

That might not have been a huge shock at the time considering Mendi was one of the best-known entertainers in Detroit - only Mendi was a chimpanzee that performed at the Detroit Zoological Park. His death in September 1934 was big news, trumping even a deadly cruise ship fire that killed more than 130 people.

The curtain’s rise and fall

After Kunsky’s chains of theaters failed during the Depression, the Michigan became part of the United Detroit Theaters, where it spent most of its theater life. United Detroit had 25 theaters in the city in the days before government monopoly-busters forced the chain to divest itself of some of its theaters. While United Detroit hung onto its gem, it would not keep the gem completely intact.

With sound fully established in theaters, the orchestra was expendable - as was the Wurlitzer, one of only three five-manual organs the company built. In 1955, the mighty Wurlitzer was sold to Fred Hermes of Racine, Wis., who installed it at his home the following year. Today, the organ still resides there, where performances are given in Hermes’ Basement Bijou, a two-story addition done up like an old movie palace.

The Michigan’s large, vertical, blade marquee was condemned by the city and later removed in 1952, and was replaced with a less exciting standard marquee. To keep up with the times, a wide screen was installed in 1954, which damaged the proscenium arch. In 1953, the Michigan was one of only 12 theaters in the country showing 3D movies like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price.

With the rise of television and suburban theaters, attendance at Detroit’s movie houses dropped off dramatically by the 1960s. One by one the grand movie houses’ marquees went dark: the Annex in 1949, the Oriental the year after, the Majestic the year after that, the Hollywood in 1958. And that’s not taking into account the dozens upon dozens of small neighborhood theaters that closed up shop. Many of those who weren’t closed were relegated to subpar flicks, second-run status, or worse - porn.

The show’s over

By the mid-1960s, the Michigan was among those that had become unprofitable. United Detroit Theaters sold the theater and office tower on March 1, 1967, for $1.5 million (about $9.7 million today). But the new owners cared only about the Michigan Building and had little interest in running a movie house. The theater would close four days later, on March 5, 1967, after a double billing of “The Spy With a Cold Nose” with Laurence Harvey and “A Thousand Clowns” with Jason Robard.

“There was nothing spectacular about the final curtain call for the 40-year-old downtown theater,” the Free Press wrote the next morning. “The last scene flashed on the big screen … the house lights brightened … the audience shuffled across the rich red carpet … and that was that.”

Only 400 people took in the show, a far cry from the theater’s glory days, when its 4,000 seats often weren’t enough. “I remember when people used to wait in line four hours just to get in the show,” projectionist Charles Milles, then 73, told the Free Press that night. “In those days we even had performers in the lobby to entertain the customers before they sat down.”

The theater was set up for a date with the wrecking ball, but Nicholas George, a man who operated 11 theaters in metro Detroit, came to its rescue and stepped in to save it in 1967. George, an intuitive showman, bought the theater and did what no one else dared: attempted to revive it. George spruced up the Michigan, repairing, repainting, recarpeting, redraping and relamping the place. He told the News in 1968 that he had paid more for renting the film that he reopened the Michigan with - “Valley of the Dolls” - than he had for the theater itself.

“The first time I saw the Michigan Theater, it was as beautiful as any palace I had ever seen,” George told the Detroit News Magazine for a September 1968 story. Owning it was a dream come true, he said.

But the touch-ups couldn’t keep the majestic Michigan afloat, and it briefly closed three years later, at 12:13 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1970. She went out with bells on. “The last day was something special,” Bob Warsham wrote in a letter published in a Theatre Historical Society book on the Michigan. “All the lights and coves were lit. Several areas were lit that in 3 years of bi-weekly movie going I had never seen before. The original paint job is still in the upper areas of the auditorium and is in rose, creme and old gold and despite the fact that it is slightly soiled, it still looked impressive. The loge and mainfloor areas are repainted tastefully and the ‘diamond’ horseshoe of the loge was all lit in royal blue.”

The Michigan’s glory had passed, though it would reopen its doors the following month and stayed in business until June 1971. Then the screen went dark for good.

George donated the fixtures, furniture and art to the Detroit Institute of Arts, though much of it was dismissed as being unworthy of the collection and quietly disappeared from the museum’s holdings. The library of orchestra sheet music, intact from the silent days, suffered a much worse fate,” theater historian John Lauter told HistoricDetroit.org. “It was donated to Wayne State University’s music department. An instructor there labeled it ‘so much 19th Century thematic clap-trap,’ or words to that effect and most of it went to WSU’s dumpsters.”

Dinner and a movie - minus the movie

Sam Hadous took out a 16-year lease on the theater with the owners of the Michigan Building and set out on a $500,000 renovation to transform the movie palace into a giant super club. “I’m not a rich man,” Hadous told the Detroit News in January 1972. “I can’t afford to have any doubts at all about the location. The suburbs may now have all the (first-run) movie houses, but I’m going to have something that nobody else has in the state - a 1,500-seat club offering the biggest name talent available.”

On Jan. 19, 1972, workers started removing seats to make way for the table and chair setup. A kitchen was added, and the inclined floors were leveled into four flat sections, each elevated above the other. The mezzanine was restored, but the balcony remained closed. The supper club opened March 27 with a performance by Duke Ellington and with a new name, the Michigan Palace. Ellington, incidentally, had performed at the Michigan Theatre back in 1934.

The club floundered, lasting only a few months, and the Michigan fell into the hands of rock promoter Steven Glantz, who turned it into a concert venue in 1973 but kept the Michigan Palace name. Many of the top rock acts of the 1970s performed there, including David Bowie, The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Aerosmith, Bob Seger, Rush, Iron Butterfly, Blue Oyster Cult and Badfinger.

But its time as a rock venue would hint at the destruction that was to come. While rock and rolling all night (and partying every day) to Kiss or T.Rex, concert-goers left their mark on the Michigan. Marble met marker. Glamorous chairs and tables met gum. Polished brass and glass met grime. Mirrors met fists. The rock days were “the kiss of death” for the Michigan, Lauter said.

Bret Eddy described the devastation in a letter published in the Theatre Historical Society’s book on the Michigan: “For the first time I saw the Michigan Theatre as a dowdy old lady; some of the red velvet railings had been ripped out, and the floor was littered with much debris. … We mounted the grand stairway with its red carpet littered with mashed paper cups and some of their contents, to the once elegant mezzanine, where we found vodka bottles and beer cans piled in corners. … My mind, rebelling at the sordid scenes we had witnessed, thought of ancient Rome having reached new heights of architectural beauty, only to be invaded and ravaged by barbarian tribes.”

The Michigan Palace didn’t fair well as a nightclub either and closed in 1976 following a dispute between the building’s owners, Bagley Associates Ltd., and Glantz over $175,000 in damage to the interior.

Parking in a palace

Tenants in the adjoining office building, including the Charge Card Association, needed secure parking, and were threatening to leave for another office building if something was not done. The theater, now in tremendous disrepair and silent, was considered a waste of space, and its owners looked at razing the theater for parking.

“According to Palace employees, the rowdy rockers sounded the death knell for the Michigan,” the Free Press wrote in July 1976. “Vandalism and damage to the structure are so great that it is more feasible to demolish it than to attempt a reconstruction. Inside the theater, mirrors have been smashed, fixtures ripped from the walls, seats torn from the floor and graffiti scrawled on the walls and floors. Most surfaces are covered with mold and soot. Holes in the roof drip water onto the debris-covered floor.”

“When it’s all said and done, it just makes a hell of a lot more sense to tear it down than to try to fix it up again,” an unnamed worker told the Free Press in the same article. “What we’re actually looking at is the end of an era.”

But architectural studies showed that literally bringing the house down would jeopardize the soundness of the adjoining Michigan Building. The solution was one of the most unusual, albeit creative, fates to ever befall such a landmark: It would be carved into the state’s only Italian Renaissance-style parking garage. Cherubs that had once flanked stars of stage and screen would now flank cars.

In 1977, the building’s owners paid $525,000 to gut the theater and build a three-level, 160-space parking deck inside it. The mezzanine and balcony were brought down, as was the grand staircase and one wall of the grand lobby. While walls were knocked out and beauty ravaged, much of the theater remains today. Its ticket booth, four-story lobby, proscenium arch, part of the upper balcony, and even the red curtain, all partially remain.

“We wanted to leave some of the theater’s beauty intact,” Leo Cooney, president of the Charge Card Association, told the Free Press in September 1978 in explaining the unusual decision.

The Golden Movement Emporium, an architectural antique auction company out of California, bought the rights to take anything that wasn’t holding the building up. Chandeliers, light fixtures, sinks, hand railings and more were all ripped from the walls and taken to the auction block. For 30 years, it went around to ritzy homes, hotels and restaurants rescuing fancy furnishings an selling them to the highest bidder until closing up shop in 2000.

Today, the sight of cars parked under grimy though still gorgeous plaster details draws tourists, photographers and gawkers in disbelief.

In a twist that is as sad as it is ironic, the theater was built on the site of the small garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile, the quadricycle. (The garage was disassembled by Henry Ford and moved to his museum in Dearborn, Mich.) The site of the automobile’s birthplace replaced by a movie theater, reclaimed by the automobile.

It truly is a story that could happen only in Detroit.