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THE MICHIGAN DAILY
From Opera to Door Prizes:
The Downfall of the Whitney
Sunday, January 15,1956 THE MICHIGAN DAILY
FITZGE RALD & FOOTBA
The Disappointed Football Hero Who Found His Glory Ir
Almost Half a Century of Catering-to Ann Arbor Audiences
fBy DAVID KAPLAN
Daily Feature Editor
AFTER bringing a galaxy of
entertainment stars to Ann
Arbor in plays and movies, the
Whitney Theatre is now a memory.
Nondescript rubble covers the
ground where' the theatre once
stood. It's age a detriment to its
safety, the building was torn down
last spring. Now, plans for a pew
theatre are in the talking stage
and construction is expected to be-
gin in the spring.
The theatre that boasted plays
with Edwin Booth had its origin
in a two story building at the
corner of North Main and West
Ann Streets. The ground floor
had food and clothing shops and
upstairs was the Athens Theatre.
Erected in 1871, the building
was later taken over by Bert C.
Whitney who owned opera houses
in Chicago, Detroit and Toronto,
and who renamed it The Whitney
AT A COST of $60,000 Whitney
rebuilt the theatre and the en-
tire building. On January 18, 1908
an opening night audience paid up
to $25 a seat to see "A Knight for
a Day" produced by the Chicago
Whitney Opera House Company.
From then on, greats of the
theatre world played the Whitney
as partof their road tour be-
tween New York and Chicago.
James Murnan, whose father own-
ed the Whitney Theatre and Wh t-
ney Hotel from 1915 until 1929,
recalls some of the stars he saw
in plays at the theatre.
Among them were Richard
Bennett (father of Joan and Con-
stance), John Drew in "The Chief,"
Mrs. Leslie Carter in "The Circle,"
Francis X. Bushman and Ethel and
Jbhn Barrymore in many appear-
One of Murnan's old playbills
announces the appearance of Ed-
win Booth in "Julius Caesar" on
May 7, 1888, but most of Murnan's
collection dates from 1905 through
AT THE CORNER of Main and Ann, over the stores of two buildings, the Whitney Theatre provided
Ann Arbor with a range of entertainihent that included the Barrymores, Westerns and egg-rolling
contests. The old Whitney has now bowed to the times - and a cinemascope, stereophonic sound
movie theatre is being planned for the site.
spected then and
an incident when
of a theatrical
were more re-
the theatre was
sprayed with perfume. "They
thought this would give it atmos-
phere," Murnan says.
The play was Sacha Guitry's
torrid "Sleeping Partners" and it
starred Irene Bordoni and Wallace
Eddinger. Murnan is still in "show
business" and runs the box-office
at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
in the League.
Sir Harry Lauder appeared 'at
the Whitney during one of his
many "farewell tours" of the;
United States. Not to neglect ballet
and the dance, the Whitney stage
was also the scene of performances
by Pavlova and Nijinsky. The
tragically magnificnt diva Nazi-
mova also brought her vehicles to
Movies, which later took over
the theatre entirely, appeared for
the first time at the Whitney in
September 1914-on Sunday; only.
They were three, four or five part
Alco productions running up to
five reels. Admissions were five
and ten cents.
B EFORE MOVIES were inter-
spersed into the stage programs,
such shows as George M. Cohan's
"The American Idea" starring
Trixie Friganza on Nov. 1, 1909
and one of the perennial versions
(Stetson's) of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
Grace George, still a leading act-.
ress in today's American theatre,
appeared at the Whitney on Feb.
8, 1910 in "A Woman'-s Day" and
prices for the performance ranged
from 35 cents to $1.50.
As part of the Klaw and Eix -n-
ger Booking Circuit, the Whitney
received plays with such stars as
Billie Burke, Elsie Janis, Maude
Adams, Lillian Russell and Ann
Arbor's own Frank McIntyre, who
was Cap'n Andy in the original
stage version of "Showboat."
Full-length plays were not the
only legitimate fare for theatre-
gors. In the fall of 1916 Lyman
H. Howe brought his "Travel
Show" of pictures and commen-
tating to th Whitneey. The audi-
nce was admittd on a price scale
of 25, 35 and 50 cents.
Later that year the Washington
Square Players from New York
made their visit to town. The
small and unknown repetory group
had as one of its mmbers a soon-
to-be-acclaimed actress, Her name
was Katharine Cornell.
Movies Take Over
IT WASN'T until the spring of
1917 that movies alone were
shown at the Whitney as THE en-
tertainment. The event was David
Wark Griffith's monumental epic
and the first of the colossally lavish
pictures. The picture was "Birth
of a Nation," starring Lillian Gish,
and it was given lush treatment as'
was customary with the "spectac-
ulars" of that day.
There were only two perform-
ances a day for the two-day run
on May 18 and May 19. With a top
admission price of $1.50, the per-
formances boasted a 20-piece sym-
phony orchestra for a movie that
cost $500,000 to make, employed
18,000 people and 3,000 horses.
Eight days later on May 26, 1917
another of D. W. Griffith's pic-
tures was given the two-perform-
ance treatment. This time the epic
was "Intolerance." The four
stories of intolerance through the
ages were tied together with a
poignant picture of Lillian Gish
gently rocking a cradle symbolic
of the cradle of time.
Now the theatre and production
budget had been raised. Admis-
sion price was $2, but now for
your money you would hear music
by a symphony orchestra of 30
members and see a film employing
125,000 people and 7,500 horses.
The stepped up production and
cost in all areas seemed sudden
within the space of eight days, but
distribution methods had also been
stepped up. "Birth of a Nation"
which had been filmed in 1914 and
released in 1915 took two years to
reach Ann Arbor."Intolerance"'
was filmed in 1915, released in 1916
and had its local showing in a
little more than a year after.
POPULAR STAGE stars of the
day were coming to town and
performing at the Whitney more
than a decade after its opening
night. Films had not, as yet, be-
come such an important enter-
tainment media. May Irwin ap-
peared in her comedy "On the
Hiring Line." In the cast was an
unknown actress now a noted
stage, motion picture and televizion
Road shows of popular successes
also made their stops at the Whit-
ney. The Chicago company of
" Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was
in town on Nov. 10, 1926 and was
followed eight days later by the
Windy City's company of "Abie's
Continuing the solo and dance
show tradition set up before the
first World War, Ruth St. Denis
and Ted Shawn performed their
joint program at the theatre on
Jan. 15, 1927.
Legitimate plays or professional
companies were not the only ones
to use the Whitney. Several sea-
sons of Junior Girls Plays were
performed there as were several
Union Operas, such as "Culture,"
"Michigenda" and "Cotton Stock-
The versatile theatre was well
equipped for the varied forms of
entertainment it presented. Acous-
tically it was probably the best in
the ity. Its seating capacity was
slightly larger than that of the
The Whitney's 1500 chair seats'
were divided into 593 on the main
floor, 408 in the balcony and 475
in the high gallery whose seats
were rows of pew-like benches.
There were also six seats in each
of the six side boxes.
LIGHTING WAS produced from
183 16-candle power lamps for
footlights and 415 three-colored
lamps for general'stage lights. Its
sets were unprecedented for a*
house running one-night stands.
Since most road shows did not
carry sets with them, each theatre
provided common backdrops to
perform the play against. The
Whitney had nine sets which in-
cluded a fancy parlor, a plain
chamber, kitchen, cottage, prison,
garden, woods, street and a hori-
On the stage-level dressing
rooms, well-fitted with lights,
tables, couches and sinks, there
were-solitary stars on each door.
All together there were 25 dressing
rooms spread out on the three
K What the audience saw before
the curtain went up was an inter-
ior of dark oak woodwork, red
upholstered seats, carpets and
draperies. The ensemble colors
were gold, sky blue, light green
and pale yellow.
Upon entering the lobby, the
theatregoer was flushed with light
from three French-finished chan-
deliers which flooded the Italian-
tile floor of a "very mild and mel-
low color" and the paneled walls
with their red burlap appoint-
Although the. interior and ex-
terior remained comparatively un-
changed, the bill of fare took a
drastic upheaval in 1934. The de-
pression had eaten into- show busi-
ness and roadshows were unprof it-
able ventures. L. C. Mull, manager
of the State Theatre and the-
Majestic Theatre (which occupied
the site of the Maynard Street
r1nrr.. n ~. mnnnLa of the WXJhit-.
ey Theatre decided to convert
ntirely to film showings.
DOUBLE features were shown
with an admission price of 15
ents until 6 p.m. and 25 cents
after 6 p.m. One of the first pic-
ures shown under the new policy
was "The Scarlet Letter" starring
Colleen Moore. Other greats of
he 1930's whose films were shown
at the Whitney included Shirley
Temple, Neil Hamilton, Bela Lu-
gosi, Ben Lyon and Will Rogers.
In the following decade the
bill was usually a western with a
second rate film. Pictures such
as Roy Rogers in "Rainbow Over
Texas" and Eddie Dean in "Song
of Old Wyoming" could usually be
found playing to gun-toting
During one such Western,
"Devil's Cargo," a high rate of
tension was apparent inside the
theatre. It was Sept. 23, 1948.
The lobby was peaceful until 9
p.m. Then a "tall stranger"
walked up to the cashier's cage,
drew a revolver out of his pocket
and shoved it through the cage.
"Check this whileI see the show,"
he said. The startled cashier gave
the stranger his ticket and he
disappeared into the theatre.
The cashier then called the
police who found the gun unload-
ed and defective. Policemen
watched for the "tal stranger"
after the showing was over, but
he didn't appear. The gun was
added to the collection of confis-
cated and unclaimed property at
the police station.
THE LATE 1940's were the days
of the gimmick to attract pa-
tronage. The Whitney participated
in the fetish by having an egg-
decorating contest for March 18 to
March 25, 1948 in connection with
the theatre's showing of "The Egg
and I." Prizes were: $10 to the
first-place winner, $5 for second
prize, 10 prizes of $1 each, and 10
pairs of tickets.
By this time the building was
more than 75 years old and age
had taken its ruinous toll. The
former owners had been told to
close the building, but were aLe
to stall for two years. Finally or
Feb. 17, 1952 the Whitney Theatre
was permanently closed. Gone
were the plays of the Barrymores
and the movies of Roy Rogers.
Sixteen years before, in 1936,
W. S. Butterfield Theatres Inc.
acquired a 99-year-lease on the
property, and now planned to build
a new movie theatre. For more
than three years after its closing,
the Whitney stood deserted, un-
used and forgotten. On Oct. 8, 1954
WPAG-TV ran a television show
honoring the fabulous history of
LAST WINTER the Butterfield
Theatres received notice -from
the State Fir'e Marshal and Build-
ing Commissioner to raze the
The theatre group complied and
in May the historic building was
torn down. At present, legal talks
concerning a common wall next to
the theatre site are holding up
scheduled spring construction.
When the case is settled, a 1400-
seat theatre will be built. It will
have a cinemascope screen, stereo-
phonic sound, air conditioning and
no offices. Its programs willbe
a mixture of "art" and. straight
No name has been selected for
the new theatre which will stand
on the luins of the riches-to-rags
By DONALD A. YATES
N the early morning hours of al-
most every football Saturday be-
tween the years of 1932 to 1937 the
telephone in the home of Herbert
0. "Fritz" Crisler would begin to
Crisler, during this period head
football coach at Princeton Uni-
versity, would ultimately reach the
receiver, lift it to his ear and listen
as the voice of one of America's
foremost writers drifted to him
over the connection.
The call came at times from
Miami, St. Paul, Chicago; from
Alabama, Hollywood or New York.
The distance it covered seemed to
make little difference to the caller.
Invariably, he was worried. For
nearly half an hour, sometimes
for longer, Crisler would listen tb
an impassioned, often incoherent
monologue as it poured forth from
the disquieted soul of the man at
the other end of the line.
Invariably, it was that Satur-
day's football game he was wor-
ried about. Regardless of whether
the scheduled opponent was Har-
vard or Dartmouth or Yale, the
writer was unbearably apprehen-
sive. He made these after-mid-
night calls because he truly needed
the consolations of his team's head
coach, the only man from whom
he felt he could secure reliable
confidences a b o u t Princeton's'
This was the childishly naive
alumnus of Princeton calling for
reassurance that all was well with
his school's football team. This
was the voice of F. Scutt Fitz-
FITZGERALD wrote some of the
most significant novels of his
In This Side of Paradisej
(1920), The Great Gatsby (1925),
and Tender is the Night (1934),
the novels on which his fame is
based, he demonstrated a peculiar,
two-sighted approach ,o writing
which set him apart from his con-
temporaries. He seemed able,
somehow, to participate in and en-
joy to the fullest the experiences
of his mature years while main-
taining a detached. objectified out-
look on the things he and his
generation were doing.
This singular gift for removed
observation is clearly described by
Malcolm Cowley: "It was as if 'all
(Fitzgerald's) stories described a
big dance to which he had taken,
as he once wrote, the prettiest
'There was an orchestra-Bingo-
Playing for us to dance the
And the people all clapped as
For her sweet face and my
and as if at the same time he
stood outside the ballroom, a little
Midwestern boy with his nose to
the glass, wondering how much
the tickets cost and who paid for
FITZGERALD viewed virtually
every segment of his existence
through this pair of "interior bi-
focals." His loyalties, in particu-
lar, always seemed to be under
scrutiny. They were attached to
many things; and they were char-
acteristically intense and virtually
undying. Scott Fitzgerald was de-
voted to his friends, to his beliefs,
to his art and - up to the last
day of his life - he was loyal to
the image he held of what he
thought other people expected of
But possibly greater than any
of these loyalties, for reasons on
the haunted period of "emotional
bankruptcy," when all his values
came crashing down about him, his
"football dream" was, for some
reason, one of the last illusions to
go. Finally, because through an
analysis of Fitzgerald and football
we arrive at a very distinct pic-
ture of one of the major motiva-
tions that molded the college boy
into the writer.
ONE man remembers Fitzgerald's
feelings quite in detail-Fritz
Crisler, today athletic director at
the University, recalls that the
writer's attitude on the sport
verged on obsession.
"I remember Scott's calls very
well," Crisler comments. And with
a smile he repeats, "Very well. Be-
tween twelve midnight and six a.m.
of the night before our games. Not
just sometimes, but practically
every eve of every home game. It
got so I sort of expected him to
call. I suppose he just wanted to
talk to someone, so he picked up
the phone and called me.
"Most of the time there wasn't
much sense in what he said. Some-
times he had a play or a new
strategy he wanted me to use. But
usually I think he just wanted me
to listen while he got some of the
Princeton feelings off his chest.
"It seemed to me that the fel-
low felt an uncommon amount of.
devotion toward Princeton, for
which he had to find a release of
some kind. And for some personal
reason of his, as head coach of the
football team, I guess I was in
line for it.
"After a while, though, I began
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Recorder of his Generation, lived through a career of inten
tually undying loyalties. His "Football Dream" was one of these loyalties - and
the illusion had collapsed, his devotion to the team that represented the dream still i
PALMER STADIUM AT PRINCETON. THE FIRST GAME PLAYED ON THIS FIELD WAS IN 1917, SCOTT FITZGERALD'S S
Cr isler Listened to Him OUnload His
At All Hours of .The Night
Shortly after Princeton . . . still
loyal to a dream.
which we can only speculate, was
the writer's devotion to Princeton
and to the Tiger football team es-
pecially, for it was a part that ul-
timately came to represent for him
Fitzgerald's devotion to football
deserves an examination, an ap-
praisal which it hasn't yet under-
This for two major reasons:
first, because when he entered into