Detroit: Behind the Boards at the Michigan Theater

Once described by an opening night audience member to the Detroit News Magazine as “a castle of dreams and an ocean of seats,” the Michigan Theater today operates as Detroit’s, and possibly the world’s, most beautiful parking garage.

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From the Burton Historical Collection, via HistoricDetroit.org

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The opulent French Renaissance style Michigan Theater opened on August 23rd, 1926 as the crown jewel of Detroit theater tycoon John. H. Kunsky’s collection.  He envisioned it to become “the great showplace of the Middle West” and chose the plot of land precisely where Henry Ford had a workshop in which he manufactured his first automobile, the Quadricycle (the garage was dismantled and carefully rebuilt and can be visited today in Greenfield Village).

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Additionally, a gas station, restaurant, hotel, a few warehouses, and other structures at the time considered “unkempt” were removed in preparation of the construction of the Michigan Building, United Artists Theater, and Leland Hotel, which were planned for an ambitious revitalization of the neighborhood.  And Kunsky wasn’t exaggerating when he said his theater would be grand.  A writer for the Free Press was awestruck by the magnificence of the architecture, describing it with reverence in his review of the theater’s opening night:

“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.”

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From the Walter P. Reuther Library via historicdetroit.org

Accurately speculated by the Detroiter in 1926 to be “filled to capacity constantly,” entertainers were brought to perform in the lobby to entertain the long queue waiting for 4,038 seats to clear.  It was graced by acts like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Bette Davis.  Bob Hope famously describes arriving for his show at the Michigan to find he was not the headliner he expected to be, and was to be opening for a performer called Joe Mendi.  Mendi was indeed one of Detroit’s most popular and beloved entertainers of the time, but was, in fact, a chimpanzee from the Detroit Zoological Park.

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1926

The Depression soon arrived to cast a grim shadow over the industry and its decadent palaces of entertainment, forever changing the architecture of cinema to the big box, cinder block constructions we know today.  One of its casualties was Kunsky’s chain of theaters, and the Michigan was sold to the United Detroit chain, which ultimately sold off the theater’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ (one of three of its kind ever produced) in 1955 to Racine, Wisconsin’s Fred Hermes for his own “Basement Bijou” theater – a truly amazing private collection of 1920’s movie palace memorabilia set up to look exactly like a movie palace originally would have.  Hermes himself offered tours through it for over 50 years – right up until the month of the publishing of this post, due to orders from the Caledonia Fire Chief.  (Here’s to hoping Hermes can get the issues resolved and open it again someday.)

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Fred Hermes with the Michigan’s Mighty Wurlitzer, via the Milwaukee, WI Journal Sentinel

During the same decade the organ was sold off, the city condemned the blade marquee.  It was removed and a more modern replacement was installed in its place.  In the ’60s, the theater was no longer profitable, and it was sold again to new owners who were only interested in the Michigan Building’s office space.  Four days after its purchase, the theater showed its final movie on March 5th, 1967.  The Free Press wrote about the unremarkable and rather sad final showing:

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

Another Detroit theater enthusiast, Nicholas George, knowing the value of the architecture and its importance to the city, tried to save it.  He was briefly able to reopen it, but it never showed another movie after he closed it again in 1971.  According to theater historian John Lautner to HistoricDetroit.org, George donated much of the Michigan’s fixtures and artwork to the Detroit Institute of Arts, who deemed it largely unworthy.  No one knows exactly where those magnificent pieces went, or whether they were destroyed.  It is certain, though, that the original silent film sheet music was obliterated after being donated to Wayne State University’s music department, who promptly threw it in the trash.

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The statue of warhorses was among those lost forever after an unwanted donation to the DIA.  From the Walter P. Reuther Library via historicdetroit.org

The theater was then picked up in a 16-year lease by Sam Hadous, who envisioned it as a 4-level “Super Club.”  Now renamed the Michigan Palace, the venue opened with a performance from Michigan Theater veteran  Duke Ellington.  The Michigan Palace lasted only a few months under Hadous before closing, reopening again in 1973 under the same name by promoter Steven Glantz as a rock venue, boasting big acts like The Stooges, David Bowie, Bob Seger, Rush, the New York Dolls, and many more.  This incarnation, hosting a much rougher and more careless audience, spelled the end for the theater forever after $175,000 in interior damages, such as torn textiles, smashed mirrors, and piled up trash, prompted a dispute between the building’s owners and Glantz.

After so much damage during the rock shows, the theater was considered ruined and a waste of space.  It was deemed more financially feasible to demolish it than to attempt to restore it, but once architects began to plan the demolition, it was discovered that the Michigan Building could potentially fall with the theater.  At the same time, tenants of the office space were threatening to leave in favor of locations with secure parking, so a fascinating compromise was made: the theater was to become a parking garage.  In 1977, an antique salvage company bought the rights to the fixtures and took everything that could possibly be removed and auctioned off, and the Michigan Palace’s club levels were gutted out and replaced with 3 parking levels connected by ramps.  Though many sculptural walls and details were ripped out in the process, plenty remains today, including shreds of the red velvet curtain over the stage.

It was picked up by an investor who is now trying to sell it off again along with a handful of other notable Detroit gems.  Tourists and photographers are occasionally granted access to the parking levels upon request to the Michigan Building’s security guards in the lobby.  The stairs found at the top level of the garage, though ornately designed, do not go anywhere anymore.  The main staircase to the balconies, as well as the spectacular room of mirrors visible from the outside of the building, are hidden behind a plywood board.

The narrow, half-moon shaped room of mirrors was merely meant for exterior decoration and is absolutely incredible to witness.

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Up the golden staircase, the elegant plaster details still retain some of their original, surprisingly bright colors.

The staircase leads to the mezzanine and balconies, whose long stretches of arched hallways are illuminated by perfectly laid construction lighting.  Some of the mirrors still hang in their frames, but the many paintings that once hung there were also casualties of the DIA.  Slight progress was made in cleaning these areas before the building went up for sale, but appears to have been halted.

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The Michigan Building’s story as the birthplace of the automobile, which eventually became a spectacle of a parking garage, is a true Detroit original.  It was such an interesting and creative re-imagining for a deeply historic location and a beloved building we might’ve otherwise lost.

To the next owner – please take care of her.

Sources:

HistoricDetroit.org: Michigan Theatre

104.3 WOMC: Remembering the Michigan Palace

Crains Detroit: Keffallinos puts 30 Detroit Properties Up for Sale

Milwaukee-WI Journal Sentinal: 3,000-pipe organ rules Caledonia man’s ‘basement bijou’

Journal Times: Fred’s ‘Basement Bijou’ closed due to safety concerns

9 thoughts on “Detroit: Behind the Boards at the Michigan Theater

  1. Thanks for the wonderful and abundant photographs! This wonder deserves all the attention it can get. Not encouraging, though, to see how short-sighted and foolish even universities and museums can be.

    Like

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