Detroit's fabulous Michigan Theater

Despite the Michigan Theater’s Marquee boast of “An acre of seats,” it wasn’t enough to accommodate the crowd on opening night in August 1926.

On the day that Detroit’s lavish Michigan Theater was born — Aug. 23, 1926 — one of Hollywood’s most lavish screen icons, Rudolph Valentino, died.

John H. Kunsky, who built the $3.5 million, 4,000-seat showplace at 238 Bagley, put Valentino’s last movie, “Son of the Shiek,” at one of his smaller movie houses on the day of the Michigan’s grand opening in order to draw crowds to both theaters. It worked. Valentino fans, who had just heard that their idol had died in New York of peritonitis at the age of 31, jammed the smaller theater, while at the same time crowds flocked to the Michigan, where a lesser film was showing, to marvel at the sumptuous new movie palace.

The Michigan had a lobby four stories high with room for as many as 1,000 patrons who could wait for the next showing. Velvet ropes contained the crowds while a pianist entertained. Paintings by artists such as Thomas Hovenden, Edwin Blashfield and Douglas Volk adorned the lobby walls. The ceiling provided a sight as awesome as any cathedral, with white marble sculptures of “Cupid and Psyche” and a life-sized pair of rearing horses pulling a Roman chariot.

Crowd waits in the lobby to see

Crowd waits in the lobby to see “The Flower Drum Song” during Christmas Week, 1961.

Inside the auditorium, a cloth-of-gold curtain hid the screen until showtime. Of the curtains, one manager said, “There were so many drapes that we had to check the blueprint to get them back in place when they were cleaned.”

A huge theater organ could be raised from the basement to stage level and back. The ceiling, which soared eight stories above the auditorium floor, could be lit by four 2,500-pound, 10-foot brass and crystal chandeliers, each of which required 210 light bulbs.

The Michigan was “a castle of dreams and an ocean of seats.”

Kunsky’s United Detroit Theatres chain eventually grew to 25 houses, none surpassing the Michigan in grandeur.

The Michigan wasn’t merely a movie house. John Philip Sousa brought his musicians to its stage in 1927, and the great dance bands of Paul Whiteman, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Harry James all played there.

Vaudeville acts and movie stars like the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Ted Lewis, Jackie Cooper, Our Gang Kids, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Rudy Vallee and Joe E. Brown among others played the Michigan, and Bob Hope was once upstaged by Jo Mendi, the Detroit Zoo’s most popular chimpanzee, who got star billing over Hope’s on the Marquee.

The Detroit News joined with the theater in 1927 in sponsoring a Cute Baby Contest.

Nicholas George, who would later have his own chain of movie theaters in the Detroit area, remembered his first visit to the Michigan. “It was as beautiful as any palace I had ever seen.”

George opened the Allen Park Theater in 1942, and would eventually become owner of the Michigan in 1967.

In 1953 the Michigan was one of only 12 theaters in America to offer 3-D movies. Fans watched with their green and red cellophane glasses as the monsters of “House of Wax” starring Vincent Price came to life.

The lobby's ornate ceiling is lit by giant chandeliers.

The lobby’s ornate ceiling is lit by giant chandeliers.

In 1964 the theater, now showing signs of age and wear, tried to beef up crowds by showing the Stanley Cup playoff series between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs on closed-circuit television. Transmission problems nearly sparked a riot when the screen went blank at the end of a game that the Wings lost. Owners refunded the $3.50 admission to the angry fans, but ushers complained of being roughed up by the departing crowds.

In 1967 George bought and restored the building and tried to revive the grand old movie house. George confided that he had paid less for the Michigan Theater than he had paid to show the movie, “Valley of the Dolls” at one of his other movie houses. But the bargain price failed to produce a profit.

In 1970 it closed again.

New owner Sam Haddous reopened it as a nightclub, then a rock concert hall in the mid 1970s, but nothing worked and it seemed likely that the Michigan would fall to the wrecking ball. But an engineering problem with demolition convinced the owners to convert the theater for inside parking.

Current owners of the building say that architectural students and foreign journalists regularly inquire about the once grand theater.

The cast of a play rehearses on the Michigan stage in 1927

The cast of a play rehearses on the Michigan stage in 1927.

Perhaps it’s because there is more history to the site than just the Michigan Theater.

On June 4th, 1896, Henry Ford completed his ‘quadricycle,” the name he had given to his horseless carriage, in a shed at 58 Bagley near Grand River, the same lot on which the Michigan Theater was built (the street numbering had changed by then).

It was perhaps typical of Ford’s genius that he had figured out how to build this complex machine, but had not planned how he would get it out of the shed when it was finished.

So he broke down a wall with an ax, pushed the quadricycle out onto Bagley and spun the flywheel. It coughed into action and Ford drove it down the street in a test run that would change the world forever.

Ford later had the building moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, where it stands today.

This was the shed where Henry Ford built his quadricyle. It originally stood on the site of the Michigan Theater but was later moved to Greenfield Village.

This was the shed where Henry Ford built his quadricyle. It originally stood on the site of the Michigan Theater but was later moved to Greenfield Village.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News