Nice recap of city’s theatre history. – Dennis WIlhelm
Jackson Citizen Patriot (Michigan)
March 6, 2010 Saturday
SATURDAY EDITION/ LOCAL/STATE; Pg. A4
Reel-good destinations; Peek Through Time
By Leanne Smith, Saturday feature, please contact reporter Leanne Smith at 768-4924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brothers Albert and Chuck Ahronheim headed into the basement of their Jackson home one Saturday morning in the early 1970s fully intending to get rid of some of the clutter.
But the old newspaper article about downtown Jackson’s once grand and glorious movie theaters they found while cleaning soon set them on a new course.
The article, Chuck said, made downtown Jackson “sound like a wonderland,” so he and his brother planned a nostalgic night on the town for dinner and a show just like people used to do decades before.
They started at the FairyGarden, a Chinese restaurant that opened in 1928 on the second floor of what is now the MorrisBuilding on the corner of W. Michigan Avenue and S. Jackson Street.
“When you were up there, you really felt like you were somewhere,” said Chuck, 50, who was a teenager then. “Field’s (Department Store) was still there. Consumer’s was still downtown.”
Then, they went to a movie at The Capitol Theatre, 130 W. Michigan Ave.
“Some of the places downtown that were in that article were still there,” said Albert, 56, who was in his early 20s then. “It made you want to keep what was left and help bring downtown Jackson back to like it was in the 1950s when everyone gathered there for fun.”
It stung when The Capitol closed in 1973, but the article and their memory of that night out spurred the Ahronheim brothers to try and save the building two years later when it was purchased by Jackson County and slated for demolition to create a parking lot for employees at the Tower Building next door.
Though they were unsuccessful and the building came down in September 1975, the brothers rallied about 40 people in the Save the Capitol Theatre Committee, which wanted to preserve the building as an arts and cultural center. One of the members was Jackson’s Gerry Blanchard, a director, drama teacher and active member of the Jackson Civic Theater, Clark Lake Players and Rosier Players.
“I think The Capitol was the first theater I ever went to,” Blanchard said. “I lived on the east side of town, and I took the bus to town every Saturday to see the cowboy shows at The Capitol, The Rex or The Family. They were all gone then except for The Capitol. I knew they were going to close it, I just hoped we could keep the building.”
The Capitol Theatre opened as The Orpheum on Feb. 24, 1916, and was quickly billed as “Jackson’s temple of vaudeville.” It boasted both luxury and innovation, including a 29-foot-by- 30-foot frameless, asbestos stage curtain that was fire resistant yet beautiful with its scenic depiction of Pharaoh’s daughter finding the infant Moses in the bull rushes.
Scenery included a New York City street set showing Herald Square at night. Three kinds of marble decorated the entrance, there was two-tone blue velvet carpeting on the stairs leading to the balcony and a mural covered the whole front ceiling.
An opening night vaudeville show that included a sketch from Jackson playwright Fred Beaman, a comedy circus and Russian vocalists was seen by about 2,600 people.
The Orpheum became The Capitol in 1922 when motion pictures started to replace live theater performances. Jackson’s first radio station, WIBJ-AM, broadcast from its basement until relocating in 1927.
The Capitol was remodeled in 1937 after suffering damage during construction of the TowerBuilding. By 1940, it and the Michigan, Majestic, Rex, Regent, Bon Ton and Family theaters were all thriving downtown.
“People just stopped going to them after TV came out,” Chuck Ahronheim said.
They started closing in the 1950s, and by 1973 when The Capitol was becoming rundown and showing only B-grade movies, only it and The Michigan Theatre were open. Modern theaters at Westwood Mall and PakaPlaza, now Jackson Crossing, had replaced the downtown movie palaces.
“It still was a shame to lose that venue,” Blanchard said of The Capitol building. “It wasn’t in that bad of shape.”
Blanchard toured the old building before it was razed. He rescued some signs from the actors’ dressing rooms, which he gave to the EllaSharpMuseum of Art & History. The stage manager’s chair is in his home.
Chuck Ahronheim has a set of double doors that led into the auditorium and several light fixtures from the theater installed in his Jackson home.
The main floor seats were refurbished and sent to a theater in Traverse City, the organ went to a local church and the balcony seats went to the TowerBuilding.
All that remains of The Capitol now is its entry way at 128 W. Michigan Ave. Ritzee Hamburgs operated there from 1959 to 1984. It has also been the Capitol Club, Theater Coffee, International Dog House and Teddy Bear Warehouse. The space is currently owned by Rick LeMaster and is being renovated for The Oh! Bar, a dueling piano bar.
Jackson was a theater hot spot long before full-length feature films came along. A network ofvaudeville circuits toured the country in the late 1800s, and Jackson was a favorite stop.
Jackson drew such performers as Sarah Bernhardt, Jack Benny, The Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Bert Wheeler, Al Jolson, Edwin Booth and Fred Astaire. Before 1920, a person could see live theater any night of the week in some of these places:
Mosher Opera House, 141 W. Pearl St., above what is Chupbach’s Sporting Goods.
Jackson Hall, 151 W. Michigan Ave. on site of Jackson City Bank, now City Hall. It burned in late 1800s.
Assembly Hall, 124 E. Cortland St., above Bishop’s OutfittingCo.Building was demolished in 1993.
Union Hall, at E. Michigan Avenue and Francis Street in the Union Hotel, on the site of what became the Dalton Hotel, Reid Hotel and Milner Hotel.
Hibbard Opera House, at Francis and Cortland streets. Built in 1882 by Daniel Hibbard as a livery stable. Friends suggested he open a theater instead. Original building burned in 1897.
Jackson welcomed nickelodeons, quick and cheaply constructed movie houses set up in vacant stores, in the early 1900s. They included:
Wonderland, inside Assembly Hall.
The Subway, 210 E. Main St. It opened in 1906 as Jackson’s first theater for motion pictures only.
The Ideal, 228 E. Main St.
The Crown, on Michigan Avenue, which opened 1909-10 and closed 1917.
The Star Theater, 107 W Main St., which opened and closed in 1908-09.
The first motion picture shown in Jackson was a film of the 1892 Gentleman Jim Corbett-John L. Sullivan fight for the world heavyweight boxing title at Assembly Hall.
The first motion picture with a storyline shown in Jackson was “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903 during the Eagles’ street carnival.
The first talking motion picture shown in Jackson was “The Lion and the Mouse,” starring Lionel Barrymore, on Dec. 8, 1928, at the Regent.
Some of them started as vaudeville houses, some were nickelodeons and some were real movie palaces, but these theaters stuck around downtown Jackson the longest:
Bijou/Regent Theater, at Francis and Cortland streets.
Originated in 1905 in a store that stood on the site of the Capitol Theatre. It moved to the site of the Hibbard Opera House in 1908. Changed its name to The Regent in 1920. Closed in the late 1940s. Building was razed around 1950.
Athenaeum/Majestic Theater, 234 S. Mechanic St.
Opened Dec. 12, 1898, with the play “Under the Red Robe.” It was the city’s only real theater at the time, with two balconies and a large stage that accommodated live horses galloping toward the crowd during “Ben Hur.” Became the Majestic in 1927. When it closed in 1954, the theater part of the building was demolished for a parking lot. The part that remained became the JacksonBusinessUniversity and later BakerCollege. The second floor also once housed the city’s library and Michigan Bell Telephone Co. offices.
The Rex, 172-74 W. Michigan Ave.Opened as a nickelodeon in 1911 by C.A. Kuhlman, who had owned the Crown Theater across the street. A few years later, he opened a second theater next door to the Rex called the Kuhl. The dividing wall between the two was removed to make one large theater. Closed around 1951. Building demolished in 1975.
Bon Ton Theater, 240 E. Michigan Ave. Opened in 1912 as a nickelodeon. Closed in the early 1950s.
Family Theater, 113 N. Otsego St.Opened in 1913 in the former O’Melay livery stables. Closed in 1962. Building burned in 1965.
Colonial Theater, 1630 E. Michigan Ave. Opened in 1913. Closed around 1947-48.
Michigan Theatre, 124 N. Mechanic St. Opened April 30, 1930, as the first theater in Jackson built for sound pictures. Had 1,800 seats, oil paintings, hand-carved furniture, red satin damask drapes and a lighted goldfish pond and fountain in the entrance. Closed in May 1978. Purchased by the nonprofit Michigan Theatre of Jackson Inc. in 1993. Is the only old downtown movie theater operating today.
The Rialto, 1708 Francis St.
The Strand, 245 E. Michigan Ave.
The Temple, Michigan Avenue.
The Victor, Michigan Avenue.