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Few places really leave me awe-struck, the Michigan Theater Detroit is one such place. I had recently seen it in the film Only Lovers Left Alive and was really wowed that such a structure actually exists. Not that I know a whole lot about Detroit, Michigan, I actually had never been before this trip. However, I made the trip an hour out of my way (each way) to the theater to see the world’s prettiest parking lot, the Michigan Theater, none the less.
Finding Your Way to the Michigan Theater
(Outside view, you enter in that open driveway on the right)
Upon arriving in Detroit, which I’m told is the murder capital of the United States. My GPS tried to kill me. Yes, full ATMOS style, it took me down a one-way street…the wrong way! After that heart attack, I finally arrived on the correct street, which is 220 Bagley by the way. Yelp will try to tell you otherwise. Depending on the day, there will sometimes be a baseball game going on that they will have parking open for. I got there on such a day. They charge $10 for parking, but if you say you’re just going in to look at the building they may waive the fee. Other days I’m told that they most likely will let you in, but it’s no guarantee.
A 90 Year Old Building
After driving up 3 very narrow ramps to the top floor, you come to the theater area. From the film and photos I’ve seen, I had no idea that it was actually 3 levels up. There’s only one ramp up and down so be careful that no one is heading up. I was lucky enough to talk to one of the guys who worked there and he made sure no one was coming up when I went back down.
Upon arrival, I was speechless at the stunning architecture and sheer size of the building. From working in film, I know there are tricks to make an area look larger than it actually is so I just automatically assume places I see on the screen are smaller in person. For a nearly 90-year-old building, it looks pretty amazing! The Michigan Theater itself has gone through many incarnations, everything from a movie theater, to a jazz club, rock concert hall, and now a parking lot.
At the Height of Style
The 4,038-seat Michigan Theatre was designed in the French Renaissance style in 1925. At the time, it was the hot place to be, the place to be seen. The theater was loaded in extravagant details, such as a 1,000-square-foot, mirror-paneled, black-and-white checkered floor Grande Lobby. Complete with red velvet hangings, marble archways, towering columns, baskets of flowers and large crystal chandeliers. “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.”
(view from the side of the ‘screen’)
“In those days we even had performers in the lobby to entertain the customers before they sat down,” said Charles Milles, a projectionist who worked at the theater. The mezzanine level was initially reserved for black-tie invited guests. Luxurious lounges and “cosmetic rooms” for women and “retiring rooms” for men. Silent movies originally played at the theatre so conductor Eduard Werner’s Michigan Symphony Orchestra and the 2,500-pipe Wurlitzer would set the moods for movies. Stars like the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Louis Armstrong, Red Skelton, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Doris Day, and Bette Davis all appeared on the Michigan Theater’s stage.
(view from the back of the theater)
Goodbye Dear Friend
The Michigan Theater was set to be demolished in 1967, but Nicholas George, a man who operated 11 theaters in Detroit, stepped in to save it. It stayed in business until June 1971, then the screen sadly went dark for good. In 1972, Sam Hadous set out on a $500,000 renovation to transform the movie palace into a giant super club. The supper club opened March 27 with a performance by Duke Ellington and with a new name, the Michigan Palace. That soon flopped and turned over into a rock concert hall. Many of the top rock acts of the 1970s performed there, such as David Bowie, The New York Dolls, Aerosmith, Bob Seger, Blue Oyster Cult and Badfinger.
(some mirrors still intact)
“According to Palace employees, the rowdy rockers sounded the death knell for the Michigan Theater,” 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.”
(where the screen, and possibly the orchestra once were)
Oh the Irony…
Luckily, architectural studies showed that demolishing the theater would jeopardize the soundness of the adjoining Michigan Building. The solution was to turn the theater into the state’s only Italian Renaissance-style parking garage. “Cherubs that had once flanked stars of stage and screen would now flank cars.”
To add to the irony, the theater was built on the site of the garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile, the quadricycle. “The site of the automobile’s birthplace replaced by a movie theater, reclaimed by the automobile.”
(part of the curtain is still attached)