Michigan Theater Building/Michigan Building

220-238 Bagley Street


When this theater opened in 1926, it was the most elegant one in Detroit.  The years of the 1920s were among the most prosperous in Detroit’s long history.  Many people in the very rapidly growing population of Detroit were earning larger and larger pay checks thanks to booming vehicles sales.  People had money to spend for entertainment, but at that time, only a minority owned cars and there were no expressways to whisk prosperous workmen and their families to week-end cottages in the sylvan north.  They sought their entertainment locally.  Professional sports—first baseball and then hockey—were becoming popular in Detroit.  Movies were, however, even more popular.  Thousands of residents went to movies once a week or even more frequently.  In every large city, a few entrepreneurs quickly determined that there was much profit to be made building huge theaters where thousands of customers would see the latest films featuring the most popular stars of the Silver Screen.

There was, however, no standard model of what a motion picture theater should look like.  They were not quite the same as legitimate theaters since their proprietors sought to seat thousands of ticket-buying customers at a time, not a couple of hundred.  So the 1920s were years in which architects experimented.  Movies, of course, provided escape from the normal life by showing adventure and presenting glamorous stars who were much more beautiful and bedazzling than the men and women who lived in Detroit’s working class neighborhoods.  If movies provided an imaginative escape from quotidian life, maybe the theaters should provoke imagination and dreaming.  Detroit’s greatest theater designer, C. Howard Crane, did his greatest work in creating the Fox Theater that, to this day, illustrates the imaginative work of those architects responsible for the first generation of large movie theaters.  They drew upon themes from around the world to come up with venues that were unique in their appearance and remain to the present, very distinctive.  And they were venues that could only be used as a theater.

John H. Kunsky was one of the Detroit entrepreneurs who understood that a fortune could be made by building theaters and then showing films to audiences that were, apparently, never sated.  He decided, in the mid-1920s, to invest $3.5 million—45 million  in 2011 dollars—to erect the most striking movie theater in Detroit.  But, just in case the movie business disappeared as rapidly as interurban electric lines did in the 1920s, taking their investors South with them—he wanted a building that had a great deal of office space.  It is possible, of course, that the banks were only willing to loan Kunsky money if he built a structure that would have value should movies prove to be a passing fancy.  Kunsky called upon the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp.  These architects designed a 13-story building but its feature was a theater that, when built, sat 4,050 movie patrons.  John Kunsky apparently often claimed the theater had 4,500 seats but that was understandable exuberance on his part.  The lobby area was four stories in height, the theater itself nine stories.  In the lobby there were marble statues of Cupid and Psyche and full sized statues of horses pulling a Roman chariot.  The lobby was so large that it could hold one thousand people waiting to enter the movie theater.  A working man and his family entering this theater certainly knew that were not in the typical Detroit neighborhood or a vehicle factory but, rather, in some place imaginatively different.

Michigan Theater was a very popular venue for more than two decades.  In addition to showing first run movies, it was the Detroit site for performance by the greatest bands of the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, including those led by Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Ted Lewis and Paul Whiteman.  It was also a location for performances by the stars of vaudeville, stage and screen including such stars as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Betty Grable and Martha Raye.   In 1953, the Michigan Theater was among the first theaters in the United States to show three dimensional movies.

Tastes in entertainment changed after World War II and the city’s population began to decline after about 1950.  Gradually, the very large downtown movie theaters found themselves financially challenged.  Movies were last shown in the Michigan Theater in about the late 1960s.  The theater was idle for some years but, in the late 1960s and early 1970, Detroit became a center for innovative rock and roll music.  The Grande Ballroom on the West Side and the Eastlawn Theater on the East Side briefly thrived as Detroit Rock and Roll artists, including Alice Cooper and Bob Segar, became national celebrities.  There was an effort to promote the Michigan Theater as a venue for such rock and roll concert but for a variety of reasons, including strong efforts to curtail drug use and city-suburban racial strife, rock and roll concerts at the Detroit venues seating several thousand became rarer and rarer in the mid-1970s.

The owners of this building wished to keep the clients who rented office space on the upper floors.  Some of their clients complained about the high cost of public parking in downtown Detroit and threatened to leave the Michigan Theater Building if the owner did not work about a better arrangement.  Management had an idea.  Since the immense lobby and huge theater were vacant, why not convert them into an indoor parking lot serving the needs of the rented offices there?  This, of course, led to protests.  One of the nation’s most glamorous theaters was being converted into an indoor parking lot.  Such comments, however, did not stop the reconfiguration.  The lobby was converted to parking and the intention was to convert the four thousand seat theater also.  However, the owners found that the architectural integrity of the building would be compromised if the theater were converted to parking so that was not accomplished.  The owners, at that point, began calling their structure The Michigan Building rather than the Michigan Theater Building.

Cornelius W. and George Lislie Rapp were among the most productive theaters designers of their era.  Hailing from Carbondale, Illinois, they graduated from the architectural program at the University of Illinois about 1899.  They established a practice in Chicago.  By the 1920s, they realized that there was a market for imaginative architects who could design movie theaters in an innovative way.  They got into that business and were extremely successful.  Their productivity rivals that of C. Howard Crane since the Rapps designed almost 400 theaters, most-but not all of them - in the Midwest.  I believe that the only other Detroit building they designed was the Detroit Leland Hotel, almost next door to the Michigan Theater  Building on Bagley.  It is very difficult to imagine that there will ever be a time when the Michigan Theater could be restored to its glory.  However, with the gradual renovation of the west side of downtown Detroit, this impressive building may survive and continue to provide office space.

Architects: C. W. and George Rapp
Date of opening:  August 23, 1926
Use in 2011: Office Building and parking structure
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Picture: Ren Farley
Description prepared: December, 2011 


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