Wherever you go, for every theater saved, at least two are probably either gone, or have been grotesquely transformed. Exception: the St. George in Staten Island, which I was privileged to help run as a movie house in 1976. That story has, nonetheless, a little of the “perils of Pauline” about it. My partners and I were the last folks to run it as a movie house, after which it went through a series of careers, including dinner theater, flea market, and church, rescued, at last, by a local dance teacher, who mortgaged her house to save it. It’s a story with an ultimately happy ending.
But theaters that didn’t survive are often more compelling to write about than ones that did; so this week I’d like to dedicate my post to the Michigan in Detroit, the only movie palace in the world that survives as a parking garage. Demolition may have been preferable, but the office building the theater was attached to wouldn’t have withstood the demolition, thus, ironically, this Rapp and Rapp 4,038-seat beauty was saved, not for its splendor, but because knocking it down would have been beyond expensive, and because the folks in the office building needed a place to park. Detroit is Motor City after all.
I’ve touched on the Michigan in previous blog posts. Its Wurlitzer, interestingly enough, was rescued in 1955, by one Fred Hermes, a theater and organ aficionado, who built his own mini-theater in the basement rec-room of his Racine home, where for better than half a century he gave concerts to all manner of travelers, on the Michigan’s 2500-pipe instrument. They marveled at the chandeliers, velvet and pilasters, but when Fred hit the keyboard, jaws routinely dropped. He was quite the showman, from the age of 7, a self-styled organ scholar, who purchased his first instrument — a pump organ his piano teacher owned — and hauled it home in his little red wagon. These tales of Fred, subject of an earlier blog post, are sadly past tense now, since he died over the winter, aged 92. What will become of his Bijou who can say.
While the Wurlitzer may once again be in limbo, it certainly had a good run, from 1955 through 2017, protected from the MIchigan’s slow sad descent into what you might call Movie Palace Hades, as the world’s fanciest parking garage. Dan Austin of historicdetroit.org, wrote a wonderful treatment of the Michigan’s sad story; I’m cribbing heavily from him, but giving credit all the way (what’s in quotes belongs to him, with the exception of quotations directly from newspapers):
"...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.” Abandoning hard reportage to wax poetical, the Detroit Free Press praised the Michigan on the day of its opening, coincidentally the day Rudolf Valentino died at the age of 31 of peritonitis. The Michigan’s owner, John H. Kunsky, a savvy showman, nonetheless kept Valentino’s last movie, The Son of the Sheik,at his smaller Adams Theatre, thereby hoping for — and getting — twice the ticket sales. The Michigan opened with the even-then-obscure You Never Know Women (Florence Vidor, Lowell Sherman), but it being the theater’s day of birth, sold out.
Built at the corner of Bagley and Cass avenues, at a cost of more than $3.5 million ($42.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation), the 4,038-seat French Renaissance style Michigan was a Rapp and Rapp house — their third largest — connected with the Michigan Building Office Tower, which would save it from the wrecker’s ball exactly fifty years later, a highly-unusual story in the annals of movie palace demolition. But back to the 1920’s.
"It is not merely a theatre for Detroit,” Kunsky told The Detroiter in August 1926. “It is a theatre for the whole world...designed to be the great showplace of the middle west.” And so it was, at least for that part of the midwest, a routinely packed house, filling almost all those seats five times a day, with singers, dancers, and a movie. Entertainers — jugglers and that sort of thing, not to mention a piano player — kept people in the lobbies from getting restless.
From its 1000-square-foot lobby, filled with original art, “as much a museum as a movie theater,” to its grand staircase, women’s cosmetics lounges and men’s lounges for “retiring,” it was every inch a movie palace. A “...large replica of a fifth-century Roman sculpture depicting a horse and chariot stood [on the mezzanine]... 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."
Kunsky was forced out of business early in the Depression, and his flagship ended up part of United Detroit Theaters. It’s a story for anyone who shudders while playing Monopoly — check it out. After sound was installed, UDT dispensed with music at the Michigan altogether (no more Detroit Symphony). Enter, two decades later, Fred of Racine, who happily carried off the Wurlitzer (this time not in his little red wagon).
Attendance was on the decline by then: urban flight, TV, all that jazz. On March 1, 1967, for $1.5 million (roughly $9.7 million today), United Detroit Theaters sold the Michigan and its office tower. The new owners weren’t show biz folk. Four days later, after a double billing of The Spy With a Cold Nose(Laurence Harvey) and A Thousand Clowns (Jason Robards), the theater closed.
“There was nothing spectacular about the final curtain...” the Detroit 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.”
All of this seems achingly familiar to an old movie palace operator, who watched the St. George slide from movies to flea market, to dark and shuttered. But our theater would survive, sitting as it does on ground that was of questionable value for a long time. As for the Michigan, it was spared for a while, saved first by Nicholas George, a local movie entrepreneur, then by Sam Gladous, a supper club guy, who leveled the rake and installed a kitchen. The theater fell at last into the hands of Steven Glantz, a rock promoter, who gave the lady what you might call some rough trade. This part of the story reminds me of what happened to the Academy of Music in Manhattan, transformed to impresario Ron Delsener’s Palladium, where drug deals and worse made an elegant house into a dive and then a demolition site.
We’re up to 1973. Add on three years of graffiti and worse, and, by 1977, the gig, for the Michigan, was up. Having dodged, once again, the fate of complete demolition, it became at last the world’s most ornate parking garage. “Today, the sight of cars parked under grimy though still gorgeous plaster details draws tourists, photographers and gawkers in disbelief.” Only in Detroit! The Michigan lost its mezzanine, once reserved for black-tie, to one of three levels of available parking.
Anybody who knows the story of America’s movie palaces, from their inception to the current time, knows that the seventies were a dark, dark time. In ‘76, my friends and I struggled mightily to keep the St. George lit and open, the same year the Michigan ended its career as any kind of performance house. Coast to coast, for a long time, palaces fell.
Meanwhile in Racine, until very recently, Fred Hermes played on.
Afterthought 1: Here’s an interesting bit from Huff Post, over four years old. Who knows whether the parking garage will have yet one more afterlife?
Afterthought 2: A great YouTube video of the Detroit Fox theater organ still apparently in use.