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If you’re looking for what to do in Detroit this weekend, check out the Michigan Theater. Only a few places have really left me awe-struck, and this 1920 theater has. I had recently seen the Michigan Theater 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, as I 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.

michigan theater detroit

(Outside view, you enter in that open driveway on the right)

Getting to the Michigan Theater in Detroit

Upon arriving in Detroit, 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 so don’t rely on it for directions on how to get the Michigan Theater. Depending on the day, there will sometimes be a baseball game going on that they will have the parking lot 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 they will most likely let you in, but it’s no guarantee.

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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 and check that no one is heading up. I was lucky enough to talk to one of the guys who worked there. He made sure no one was coming up when I went back down.

1920 theater

What to Do in Detroit this Weekend

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 1920s building that has been thru a lot, it looks pretty amazing! The Michigan Theater itself has gone through many incarnations. It has been a movie theater, jazz club, rock concert hall, and now the Michigan Theater parking lot.

1920 theater

A 1920s Theater, 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 and be seen. The 1920s theater was loaded in extravagant details, such as a 1,000-square-foot mirror-paneled black-and-white checkered floor in the 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.”

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michigan theater detroit

(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 theater so conductor Eduard Werner’s Michigan Symphony Orchestra and the 2,500-pipe Wurlitzer would set the moods for movies. Stars such as 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.

what to do in Detroit this weekend

(view from the back of the theater)

Act II for the Theater

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. Until June 1971 it stayed in business and then the screen sadly went dark for good. In 1972, a $500,000 renovation transformed the movie theater into a giant super club. The super club opened on March 27 with a performance by Duke Ellington accompanied by 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.

michigan theater detroit

(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. Between vandalism and damage to the 1920s building, it was more feasible to demolish it than to attempt a reconstruction. Mirrors have been smashed, fixtures ripped from the walls, seats torn from the floor and graffiti was scrawled on the walls and floors.

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michigan theater detroit

(where the screen, and possibly the orchestra once were)

The Michigan Theater Parking Lot

Luckily, architectural studies showed that demolishing the 1920s 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.”

michigan theater detroit

(bottom floor)

michigan theater detroit

(side room)

michigan theater detroit

(part of the curtain is still attached)

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Author

Michelle Jensen is a twenty-something traveler, occasionally solo, you’ll find road tripping across the U.S. or hostel-hopping in Europe. Currently residing in Los Angeles, CA with a day job in Television.

3 Comments

  1. You were in Detroit!? Aw man, I work just ten minutes outside of Detroit. The city might not be in the best place financially right now and there is still a lot of racial tension but even this SoCal native just can’t seem to get away from it. 🙂 The people are amazing and there are so many hidden gems in the city.

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