Michigan Theatre

238 Bagley Street,
Detroit, MI 48226

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Now a parking garage

Built on the site of Henry Ford’s house. The Michigan Theatre was built for the Kunsky circuit in 1926 by Chicago-based firm Rapp & Rapp, in their traditional French Renaissance style, and sat over 4,000 in its cavernous auditorium.

It cost over $5 million and was extravagantly elegant. The Michigan’s four-story lobby was decorated with a set of huge chandeliers, towering columns painted to resemble multi-colored marble, and oil-paintings and sculpture from Europe. Its grand staircase swept up-wards to a mezzanine level complete with a sitting area with antique furniture and another staircase led to the balcony levels.

The auditorium featured a large orchestra pit, and a $50,000 Wurlitzer 5 manual 28 rank organ. Its stage was large enough to accommodate the most elaborate stage shows of the day.

Opening day August 23, 1926 featured the film, “You’ll Never Know Women” starring Florence Vidor. The first sound film at the Michigan Theatre was in 1928, Esther Ralston in “Sawdust Paradise”.

In 1933, United Detroit Theaters acquired the Michigan Theatre from Paramount-Publix/Balaban & Katz, who had in turn, purchased it from Kunsky.

By the end of the 1930’s, both the live stage shows and the grand Wurlitzer organ were gone, and the theatre featured only movies.

In 1954, a wide screen was installed, damaging the proscenium arch’s ornate plasterwork. The first CinemaScope film screened at the Michigan Theatre was “The Command” starring Guy Madison.

The original multi-story vertical marquee on the Michigan Theatre was removed in 1952 and replaced with a much plainer standard marquee.

After declining attendance made the theatre unprofitable for United Detroit to keep operating during most of the 1960’s, they closed it on March 5, 1967.

Nicholas George reopened the theatre later the same year, but it struggled and was shuttered three years later.

In 1973, it was converted into a supper club named the Michigan Palace, but only lasted several months before going out of business. Renamed Michigan Theatre again, until 1976 it was used for rock concerts.

The theatre’s owners at the time decided to convert the magnificent palace into a three level parking garage. While portions of the lobby, upper balcony and the projection booth are somewhat intact, the auditorium was stripped down to its shell except for the ceiling and parts of the upper proscenium arch, which still hang on the garage’s upper floor looking like ancient Roman ruins.

You can still see the holes in the plasterwork where the chandeliers once hung, and there are still areas where the plasterwork remains gilded despite the grime and neglect of decades.

The theatre can be seen in the movie “8 Mile” in the background as they rap before they enter the Chin Tiki, and is also featured in “Lose Yourself”, by Eminem as a stage backdrop.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 106 comments)

LouRugani on December 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm

The MICHIGAN’s spectacular vertical sign was called the largest in Michigan, and was 120 feet tall by fourteen feet high and weighing seventeen tons.

By 1954, corrosion was found inside the 27-year-old sign which wasn’t noticeable outside. Sign contractor Edward A. Long of the Long Sign Company worked several eight-hour shifts from midnight until 8 am using a huge Moto-Crane to remove the sign, cutting it from the top down with torches. United Detroit Theatres said the sign wouldn’t be replaced.

Matt Lambros
Matt Lambros on April 30, 2013 at 6:53 am

I recently photographed the former Michigan Theatre. Check out the post at After the Final Curtain

cmastersin on July 19, 2013 at 10:32 pm

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57594651/wis-mans-basement-holds-ultimate-home-theater/ The original 5 manual Wurlitzer from the Michigan can be seen here in a basement decorated like a movie palace; working and playing!

Bway on July 21, 2013 at 10:00 am

Wow, that is REALLY cool!!!

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on July 21, 2013 at 10:57 am

Here’s the text of the report about Fred and his organ:

(CBS News) RACINE, Wis. — From the outside, the three-bedroom ranch in Racine, Wis., looks like any other house. On the inside, it looks like any other house.

But if you make your way down the stairs, you’ll find a cellar unlike any other cellar. And it’s down here where 87-year-old retired insurance salesman Fred Hermes works on his hobby in front of a live audience.

“It makes me happy to see the enjoyment they get out of this,” Fred says.

Yes, here in the basement, where most of us keep our water heaters and paint cans, Fred has a giant Wurlitzer and balcony seating.

Fred built this theater-in-the-ground in 1959. It wasn’t so much that he wanted a theater as he needed a place to keep his organ and the 3,000 pipes that came with it. He rescued the organ from the old Michigan Theater in Detroit.

“Biggest organ that Wurlitzer ever made with five keyboards,” Fred says of the organ. It was made in March 1926, which Fred notes was the “same month I was born.”

Fred says he feels a kindred spirit with the organ.

That explains the Wurlitzer, but what about the rest of his place?

“Then they started tearing down all these beautiful movie theaters around the country,” he says. “And that’s when I thought, ‘Why not pick up some of this junk and make it look like a movie palace?’”

Which leads to the question: Why would anybody want that?

“Because they’re crazy,” Fred replies.

A few years ago, word got out that Fred had this theater and the tour buses have been stopping by ever since — which is fine by Fred. In fact, he says he has a responsibility to share his place.

“Here’s the way I look at life: this is a gift that God gave me,” he says. “And I think I owe something. And that is why I have people coming around here.”

They say God works in mysterious ways. And if this is one of those ways, Lord knows what he’s trying to tell us. Maybe follow your dreams, or share your passion, or maybe we’re just supposed to appreciate the quirks of this great country.

Like Fred’s home theater, sweet home theater.

If you want more information or would like to visit Fred’s basement organ, go to RealRacine.com.

edlambert on March 7, 2014 at 2:47 pm

The film referenced was “Strategic Air Command,” filmed in VistaVision. I specifically went to the Michigan Theater to see it, thinking that projected VistaVision films were of a wider aspect ratio such as CinemaScope films. I was wrong about that, but the depth of field was unbeatable except by the Cinerama films.

CrustyB on April 23, 2014 at 8:20 pm

The Jim Jarmusch movie “Only Lovers Left Alive” was partially filmed here.

rivest266 on November 3, 2015 at 4:36 pm

August 23rd, 1926 grand opening ad in photo section

Comfortably Cool
Comfortably Cool on July 13, 2022 at 7:27 am

A video of the Detroit Opera’s presentation of “Bliss” in what remains of the Michigan Theatre can be viewed here

spectrum on August 3, 2023 at 6:05 pm

2021 Google aerial and street views from 2021 show the building still as a parking garage, with the roof above the auditorium full of holes. But the roof around the office portion looks new so that part may still be occupied.

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