The Way It Was – The Michigan Theatre

1938 This bustling bagley streetscape encapsulates the vibrancy of downtown Detroit in the late 1930s. Shot from Grand River looking north, the photo shows the grand old Michigan Theatre on the immediate left. The other marquee in the background belongs to the United Artists Theatre; the Statler Hotel is on the right. The Michigan was showing Boy Meets Girl starring James Cagney and Secrets of an Actress with Kay Francis. Although the Michigan wasn’t the largest downtown theater, it was generally considered the most beautiful, with sculptures and paintings accentuating an interior rife with marble, gleaming brass, crystal chandeliers, acres of red velvet, and a sweeping main staircase. The Michigan, which originally seated more than 4,000, opened in August 1926. In addition to films, the theater through the years hosted vaudeville, big bands, and other entertainment. The downtown movie palaces were suffering from dwindling audiences by the late ’60s, and the Michigan rang down the curtain in 1967, only to be refurbished and reopened shortly afterward. Its renaissance didn’t last long, but the theater wasn’t ready to give up the ghost. It was transformed into a supper club called the Michigan Palace, but that experiment was short-lived. Music would be its temporary salvation in late 1972 when live bands, including Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, Iggy and the Stooges, Aerosmith, Rush, and The Doors rocked the rafters of the theater, which retained the name Michigan Palace. The music thumped on until 1976, when the venue shuttered for good. A year later, to the horror of preservationists and movie-theater buffs, the interior was gutted and turned into a parking garage, which ironically served as a scene in several films, most notably 8 Mile.


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