Encore Performances: Historic theaters revel in second acts

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.

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Fox Theatre

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

Calumet Theatre
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

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Detroit Opera House

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

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Fox Theatre

Fox Theatre
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

Frauenthal Theatre
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.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

Frankenmuth: Michigan’s Bavarian City

By Kim Schneider

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

Maybe it’s the snow-white horses attached to Cinderella carriages bedecked with red blossoms. or perhaps it’s the songbirds flitting around a faux castle where, inside, waitstaff in full Bavarian dress serve fried chicken and heaping helpings of mashed potatoes or buttered spaetzle.

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But there’s a Disney-esque vibe to the popular tourist destination town of Frankenmuth, where hand-carved figurines act out the story of the Pied Piper atop a 50-foot glockenspiel tower and at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (25 Christmas Lane), even the phrase “trash can” is translated into 32 languages on the side of the receptacle.

But what Frankenmuth perhaps most represents is the quaintness and small-town friendliness reminiscent of a German village of old, says Lynn Klammer, author of “Frankenmuth: a Guide to Michigan’s Little Bavaria” and herself a descendent of one of the town’s first settlers.

“I think that overall, coming to Frankenmuth is a bit like stepping back in time,” she says. “Regardless of the festivals and other attractions, I think that it’s the old-world, German atmosphere that brings people back year after year.”

That description feels apt as Bavarian folk music wafts from the town’s central park, and a man in lederhosen holding an accordion is calling for volunteers of all ages to swing dance to his traditional tunes. a young couple pushes a stroller, and others walk hand in hand down streets lined with perfect petunias. and this family-friendly town needs no talking characters in costume, not with its German-style architecture, indoor waterparks, riverboat rides and a signature tourist draw that’s a bit unusual and yet popular among all ages: fried chicken.

zehnderssignfbThe first chicken dinners were served to guests at the Exchange Hotel (now Zehnder’s), which opened in 1856 and started feeding hungry travelers. The menu staple, particularly when served family-style, is such a draw at both Zehnder’s and the sister restaurant, the Bavarian Inn, that chicken-related trivia can make for fun and surprising dining conversation. Have your dining companions guess how many chicken dinners are served annually in town? (that would be 2 million). The Bavarian Inn alone each year serves 50,000 pounds of chicken, 566,749 pounds of potatoes, 200,000 pounds of Blue hubbard squash, 138,913 loaves of stollen and a perhaps surprising 85,334 mixed drinks.

It’s fitting in a way that food helped launch the town’s tourism industry. German missionaries — and farmers — were the town’s first settlers, and farming and faith remain showcased as much as the Bavarian roots of those early idealists, in the vast and productive fields surrounding the town, its many churches and even within tourist destinations. The first settlers were some 15 Lutherans sent to spread the gospel to Chippewa Indians through their example from two villages in the Kingdom of Bavaria. The town’s name stems from their home province (Franken) and the German word for courage, Muth. Farming remains a local tradition, and the town is surrounded by fields of sugar beets, corn and beans.

Tiny Zehnder, a one-time hog farmer, is credited with the concept of the town’s Bavarian theme. Others in the Zehnder family were already running one restaurant when he convinced the owners of the Fisher Hotel (now the Bavarian Inn) to sell. When the economy slowed soon after the purchase, he could have closed the doors. Instead, he expanded, adding Bavarian touches large and small as well as costumed servers and German specialties. The downtown business district later adopted the southern German architectural theme that drew on the heritage of those early settlers.

To get a firsthand look at the town’s history, guidebook author Klammer recommends a visit to St. Lorenz church and log cabin; the log cabin replicates the original St. Lorenz church constructed by settlers when they first came to the area. The church, built in 1880 and later remodeled boasts stained glass windows that depict Frankenmuth’s history.The local museum includes pictures of the original settlers and a doctor’s kit used by one of the town’s first physicians.

For a literal taste of the town’s roots, try your hand at pretzel rolling, offered daily at the Bavarian inn. The $4.99 price includes your hot, tasty, finished creation. There’s cheese sampling and Herman-style sausages at the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus and modern-day sweets at Sugar High Bakery, a winner of the TV show Cupcake Wars. German food, beer and dancing are the focus of Octoberfest, notable for being the only one outside of Germany recognized by Munich. But winter is when the town shines — literally — from neighborhood decorations to the luminaries that line the wooden bridge. Zehnder’s Snowfest attracts top ice and snow carvers from around the world. and at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the daily electric bill of around $1,250 tells you something about how brightly the store celebrates, inside and out, Klammer notes.

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“In what other town can you get all this?” she asks, referring to the festivals and history stories and horse-drawn carriage charm, “and also have Christmas year-round?”

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.