By Kath Usitalo
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.
Once upon a time theaters were designed as lavish, sometimes outlandish and entertaining settings for the main attractions on stage or screen. With crystal chandeliers, trompe l’oeil murals, elaborately carved plaster, extensive use of gold leaf, brilliant colors, faux and real marble, exotic statuary and other details, they transported audiences to another world even before the house lights dimmed and the curtains rose.
Many of Michigan’s theaters and opera houses survived the threats of multiplex cinemas, declining audiences, wrecking balls and general neglect, and have been restored by dedicated individuals and groups with an appreciation for their value as historic and architectural gems. Here’s a sampling:
Croswell Opera House
Michigan’s oldest, and the third oldest continuously operating theater in the U.S., has entertained audiences since 1866 with lectures, vaudeville, talking pictures, musicals and concerts. Tucked into a city block in Adrian, it was a natural stop between Chicago and Detroit for 19th century luminaries on tour including John Philip Sousa, Edwin Booth, Maude Adams, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The Croswell served as a movie theater from 1921 until 1967, when it was rescued from demolition. Today, after extensive renovation, the 650-seat house will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2016 with musicals, touring shows and concerts. crosswell.org, (517) 264-7469
Tibbits Opera House
Built in 1882 by cigar manufacturer Barton s. Tibbits, the imposing, French second empire structure bearing the civic leader’s name is the second oldest theater in the state. Located in Coldwater, about halfway between Chicago and Detroit and on the main route between the cities, Tibbits was a popular venue for touring companies, entertainers and lecturers. The fanciful facade, which was dramatically “modernized” during its years as a movie theater, has been restored, including replacement of its impressive cupola. The 499-seat auditorium features a soaring, 40-foot-high domed ceiling and wonderful acoustics for concerts and musicals. tibbits.org, (517) 278-6029
The population of the Keweenaw Peninsula exploded with the 19th century copper boom, and in 1900 the community built an opera house that brought notables such as Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Russell, Lon Chaney, Sr. and Madame Helena Modjeska to the upper Peninsula. (Patrons often encounter the ghost of Modjeska, who died in 1909 but appeared on stage in 1958 to assist an actress who had forgotten her lines.) The Calumet Theatre is one of 21 Heritage sites of the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
calumettheatre.com, (906) 337-2610
Detroit Opera House
Opened in 1922 as the Capitol Theater, this 4,250-seat vaudeville and movie house was designed by C. Howard Crane in the style of European opera houses the architect had recently toured. It endured several incarnations until rescued in 1988 and extensively restored as the home of the Michigan Opera Theatre. Pavarotti performed at the gala opening concert in 1996, fulfilling a promise he had made years earlier while touring the ruin. Many of the elements of the original Italian Renaissance design, such as its great hall and marble staircase, crystal chandeliers and murals, survive in the 2,700-seat setting for the MOT season and dance performances from October through May.
michiganopera.org, (313) 237-7464
Detroit’s largest and grandest entertainment house was called a “temple of amusement” when it opened in 1928. “Siamese-Byzantine” is the description given its combination of Indian, Egyptian, Far eastern and Babylonian decor, designed by C. Howard Crane. like the movies it was built for, the Fox embodied escapism. and it still does. although down on its heels when purchased in 1987 by Michael and Marian Illitch (whose now-extensive holdings began with their little Caesars Pizza chain) the Fox reopened in 1988 after deep cleaning and some restoration. second in size only to Radio City Music Hall, the Fox seats over 4,800 for concerts and Broadway, seasonal and family shows. olympiaentertainment.com/fox-theatre, (313) 471-3200
In 1930 a Spanish Renaissance movie palace opened its doors in Muskegon, on the shore of Lake Michigan. C. Howard Crane filled the Michigan Theater with ornate plasterwork, rich colors and Moorish design elements. By the 1970s the elaborate decor had been covered up, but with the support of the local businessman for whom it’s now named, the theater was returned to its glory and is now the setting for plays, musicals, ballet, symphony and other concerts and events. each October the Buster Keaton Film Festival’s silent movies feature live accompaniment on the Barton pipe organ. frauenthal.org, (231) 722-2890
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.
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