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October 28, 1983 - Image 17

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The Michigan Daily, 1983-10-28
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e tures

The Michig n Theater
601 E. Liberty

By Crystal Duncan
I T'S A BRISK and starry winter night,
1928. President Coolidge has just
ended a national address releasing
thousands of Americans from their
hypnotic trance at the family "talking"
radio. Elsewhere, on the newly
coeducational University of Michigan
campus, a group of carefree students
dressed in the highest fashions of the
day hop into dad's Model T and make
their way to the premiere of the latest
vaudeville act at the new, most talked-
about spot in town - the Michigan
According to the media of the day,
Angello Polous, a, first generation
Greek immigrant and a successful Ann
Arbor entrepreneur, always had a
dream of building a magnificent
theater palace complete with all the
grandeur of the silent film and
vaudeville palaces of the 1920s. And
when the opportunity presented itself,
Polous inaugurated the construction of
the monumental theater, and on
opening night, January 5, 1928, his
lifelong dream became a reality.
The Michigan Theater, ownedby
Polous, was the "flagship" of the But-
terfield Theater Corporation, a large
management circuit owning and run-
ning several other Ann Arbor theaters
then and today - 55 years later. They
spared nb expense in making the
MichiganTheater into the premiere
movie house for silent film stars and
vaudeville acts of the 1920s. Its features
included floors and lush maize and blue
carpeting, sparkling chandeliers, full-
length mirrored lobby (complemented

throughout with ornamental gold
trimmings), two majestic staircases
with rich wooden banisters, and last
but certainly not the least, the domed
ceiling. These are the accessories that
gave the 1800-seat auditorium an
opulent palace-like atmosphere.
"It was definitely the, premiere
auditorium from the time it was opened
well into the 1940s," says Russ Collins,
the Michigan Theater manager and
director. "Originally these theaters
were built to invite the average person
in when movie palaces, in the early part
of the century, had the reputation of
being a type of "low-brow" entertain-
ment. Thus they were built to prove to
the public that vaudeville and silent
flims were indeed entertaining."
Ultimately the originators of silent
film-vaudeville acts and theater
builders succeeded in acquiring a large
following of their productions, and to
ensure that these silent films were en-
tertaining, they were accompanied by
live vaudeville-type shows. "These
silent films, live vaudeville-type
shows," explains Collins, "in addition
to the architectural detail florid designs
of those theaters made silent films and
theaters, like the Michigan, suc-
However, this silent film-vaudeville
success was short-lived in the history of
the Michigan Theater - by the 1930s
both silent films and vaudeville acts
became virtually nonexistent due to the
introduction of the "talkies." Thus,
with the "death" of silent film and live
acts, the Michigan Theater from the
1930s on,primarily ran first-run movies
and broadway shows.
The theater's marquee sported such
big names as Jack Benny, Bing Crosby,
Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes,
while the most prestigious show to ap-
pear was William Shakespeare's
Othello, starring Paul Robeson.
That's not to say, however, that all of
the Michigan Theater's success has
been solely in the past, only to be recor-
ded in history books. It stillhas an im-
pact on the community today. In 1978,
when the Butterfield Theater Cor-
poration chose not to renew its lease,
there was an outbreak of tremendous
community involvement to save the



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Interiors :Shiny new bannisters
theater from a disasterous fate - such
as becoming a shopping mall or fur-
niture showroom.
Even though Ann Arbor was a much
smaller community in the 1920s, it was
easier in that time to fill the 1800-seat
auditorium on a regular basis. Today,
however, with movie complexes like
the Movies at Briarwood (which has
seven screens), selling out such a big
theater with only one feature is vir-
tually impossible.
In September 1979, the theater was
taken over by the Michigan Community
Theater Foundation, a non-profit foun-
dation, and later the building was pur-
chased by the city of Ann Arbor. the
community became very involved and
lobbied for the passage of two millage
issues in 1982 to ensure funds for the
purchase of the theater. The future of
the Michigan Theater was secured.
Collins feels that this action "shows a
great deal of community support right
there...the citizens of Ann Arbor, in the
depths of the recession, voted to tax
themselves in order to pay for a unique
community auditorium."
And there is no question, the
Michigan Theater definitely isa unique
community auditorium. During the
1950s and through the majority of
the- '60s and '70s, the theater was used
almost exclusively for film shows.
However, since 1979, the
management has reinstated live acts,
with everything from rock bands to folk
ballet. The theater also hosts many
successful plays and broadway produc-
tions, the most recent production being
Amadeus. "It has become the home of
cultural events, festivals, ballets,
classic film showings, and is also the
primary concert hall of the Ann Arbor
Chamber Orchestra.
"The thing that's great about this par-
ticular facility," Collins says, "is that
it's in a very active art community-with
Ann Arbor's interest in the arts and en-
tertainment, with the theater's modest
size in comparison to most of the movie
palaces of its time, and with the many

technical capabilities of the stage
which is very well equipped-
all Make this place operate very ef-
fectively. My goal down the road,"
Collins adds, "is to put back some of the
snap thatiwas originally here, with
uniform ticket takers or managers,
where all of the show wasn't on the
stage or screen, but some of the show
out front.
One major project currently under-
way includes a four-phase project to
restore the architectural "sparkle" of
the original 1920s movie palace design,
which was diminished through two
previous remodeling projects in the '40s
and '50s.
The theater management is soon to
embark on a capital funds campaign, in
which there will be an appeal to
benefactors, corporations, and foun-
dations for support of the historic
restoration of the theater. Part of this
campaign will include a community
appeal for support as well. "We can
show the public the original intent of the
theater as far as design that really
made this an excellent showplace.
Though it still is an excellent
showplace, some of the sparkle has
diminished through the years and through
inappropriate remodeling, and we hope
to improve the facility's technical
aspects as well," explains Collins.
The Michigan Theater has survived
for 55 years and though it has been
weakened a little along the way, it is
still striving on with the help of the
community and other concerned in-
stitutions. The theater hosts a wide
range of events to suit everyone's tastes,
and it is definitely an asset to the Ann
Arbor area.
Whatever the future holds fbr us
as movie-goers and theater fans, we
have yet to find out - but you can be
sure, if it's at the Michigan Theater, it's
good entertainment in a palatial set-

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The Michigan: History of the Theater, Part I

14 Weekend/October 28. 1983

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