Beginning in the 1920s, neighborhood theaters were built in Detroit and its densely settled suburbs. From that decade into the 1950s, thousands of customers viewed movies in these buildings every week. At a peak in 1943, there may have been 117 neighborhood theaters in Detroit. Most of them have been converted to other uses or have been razed. The Alger Theater is one of the best surviving examples of this type of structure. The other such neighborhood theater that survives in Detroit is the Redford Theater.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the economic difficulties of the Depression decade, the movie business prospered. It was a relatively low-cost entertainment and customers did not need a car or public transit to get to their local movie theater, so new movie houses were built in Detroit even in the 1930s. Saul and Hattie Sloan were Detroit theater developers at this time. That is, they did not operate theaters; rather, they built them and then sold them to an operator. The Sloans got a building permit for the structure you see in April, 1935 and it was opened in August of that year. Almost immediately, they sold the Alger Theater to George Washington Trendel, a Detroit lawyer who owned and operated many movie theaters in the metropolis. By 1925, Trendel operated the largest chain of theaters in Michigan, but he is also well known for his entrepreneurial activities with radio. He was the developer of the “Lone Ranger” series and profited by selling that program to the American Broadcasting Company.
Trendel is a significant figure in the history of this nation’s movie industry. He had capital during the Depression to purchase many theaters when their owners faced bankruptcy. At one time, he owned or had the controlling interest in the largest theaters in the Detroit area, including the Michigan, United Artists, the State, Fisher and Eastown. He also helped to establish the Hays Commission. As soon as movies became popular, local governments enacted ordinances about what might be shown so as to protect public morals. The movie industry did not want to be regulated in this manner, so they took the matter into the federal courts. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that movies were a business and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. This meant that cities and states could enact law specifying what might not be shown.
The movie industry feared such local regulation. George Trendel apparently believed that the movie industry would thrive if it catered to family audiences. By the 1920s, the actors and actresses in Hollywood were portrayed as unsavory characters engaging in drug use, excess alcohol consumption, casual sex and some violence. Trendel and others encouraged the establishment of the Hays Commission. Hays was a prominent Republican lawyer who headed Warren G. Harding’s successful campaign for the White House in 1920 and then served as Postmaster General. By 1930, major movie producers agreed to abide by the rules of the Hays Commission, rules that continued in operation into 1968. The Hays Commission was a great boon to the movie industry since it stopped the practice of local communities specifying what films might be shown in their community. These rules proscribed most anything that might be viewed as offensive. Perhaps the only movies produced today that would pass the Hays Commission rules are those rated as G.
This theater was a very modern one that originally sat 1,182 patrons. The sound and projection equipment were state of the art. It was also one of the first Detroit area theaters built with air conditioning. As you can see, Art Deco styling was used throughout the exterior. While designed as a theater, the investors knew that East Warren was a lively shopping area, so four commercial spaces were included in the building’s side that faces that street.
This movie theater changed owners several times, but continued to show films until 1975 when, due to the shift of population to the suburbs and the almost universal ownership of cars, it closed. For a brief period, it was used for live shows. It remained pretty much idle for about a decade but then was purchased by a new owner who showed Grade B “blood and gore” movies. That was not a success and this movie palace closed once again in 1986. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased by a non-profit group who wished to restore the building to its glory and use it for events, the Friends of Alger Theater. For the past quarter century, they have been making improvements to this historic building and renting it for events. The seating has been reduced to about 825. The website listed below provides more information about their aim and their accomplishments, including having this appealing structure listed on the city, state and national historic registers.
This theater was named, I believe, for Russell Alger. After serving as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War, Alger earned his fortune as a lumberman buying large tracts of land and then selling the white pine that Michigan industries used in tremendous quantities. He became active in politics and served as the state’s Republican governor from 1884 through 1887. President William McKinley appointed him to serve as Secretary of War. In 1902, the governor and state legislature appointed him to represent Michigan in the United States Senate. This theater keeps his memory alive but it is, alas, seen by far fewer people than those who walk by the Russell A. Alger Memorial Statue designed by Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon in Grand Circus Park.
Architects: Unknown to me
Architectural Style: Art Deco or Art Moderene
Date Opened: August 22, 1935
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed October 21, 1008
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites; Listed July 22, 2005
National Register of Historic Places: # 0500719 Listed August 5, 2005
Use In 2010: Theater undergoing renovation
Photograph: Ren Farley; November, 2009
Description prepared: January, 2010
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