Michigan Theatre’s Historic Past Shines Brightly Into the Future

The Michigan Theatre of Jackson has been a shining star in downtown Jackson for 88 years, and thanks to a stream of volunteers, donors and patrons it is still going strong. The doors of this iconic theater and art house opened April 30, 1930, with a music show, vaudeville acts and a showing of the movie “Young Eagles,” starring Buddy Rogers and Jean Arthur.

“Today we are keeping true to that same premise of showing both movies and having live shows,” said Steve Tucker, executive director of the Michigan Theatre. “We hold 300 or more events a year.” 

Tucker said those events include not just movies, but also things like concerts, school proms, nonprofit events on subjects like autism and Alzheimer’s disease, educational films, community and school events, summer programs, and more.

First owned by Butterfield Theaters, the majestic facility was the place to go for premium entertainment. Patrons were awed by the elegance of its ornate plasterwork with gilded cherubs, heavy satin damask curtains, a marble staircase leading to the balcony, carved walnut furniture and stained-glass light fixtures.

Designed by architect Maurice Finkel, the building originally cost $500,000. In 1991, a Detroit architect estimated the endeavor would cost $16 million today. It was not only the largest of its kind, but it was also the first to show sound pictures and the first air-conditioned building in the downtown area. The theater’s air conditioning system is what is called a “washed air” ventilation system, which is still considered to be an engineering marvel even now since it can circulate the air in the theater in only 10 minutes.

The theater underwent a few changes from 1930 until the theater initially closed its doors in May 1978. By the mid-1950s, the majority of the other old theaters in downtown Jackson closed their doors as people preferred malls and multiscreen movie theaters. But thanks to those who loved the great theater, it didn’t face the wrecking ball like so many others. 

It was instead leased by the Michigan Theatre Preservation Association and reopened by December 1978. It ended up on the National Register of Historic Places on May 8, 1980. Theater funding came from venues such as ticket sales, rentals and concessions; however, donations from individuals as well as businesses and foundations helped pay for the big projects. 

The only major changes made to the facility were adding an Art Moderne Marquee in 1940, repainting the inside to a darker shade, replacing carpeting and adding a candy counter. The theater had its ups and downs during the next few decades as its ownership changed a couple of times, but its reign was far from over. 

In August 1993, the theater was purchased by the not for profit Michigan Theatre of Jackson Inc., and its upswing began. That included more renovations, including a new marquee that better resembled the 1930 version, some regilding and returning the lobby and auditorium to its original color scheme. In 2012, the Michigan Theatre of Jackson received a Michigan Historic Preservation Award for the efforts made in restoring the theater.

As time went on and technology moved forward, the theater has had to stay with the times. When the internet rose to prominence, the theater built a website and an email mailing list as well as become active on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. 

“When we first got a Facebook page in 2012, we went from having 2,000 followers to today having more than 15,000,” said Tucker. “We also have several thousand people on our email list.”

When it comes to the theater’s mission today, Tucker noted that it has changed from its original for-profit status to a nonprofit venue. 

“We are vested in our mission as a nonprofit and have partnered with several organizations such as museums, cultural enrichment programs, Detroit Institute of the Arts, etc.,” Tucker explained. 

Tucker said that part of that tradition was fulfilled when the 26th Detroit Concert of Colors held a similar version of the diverse music and arts festival at the Michigan Theatre of Jackson in July called the Jackson Unity Festival. Tucker was able to bring the event to fruition after speaking with Ismael Ahmed, founder of the Concert of Colors, and the mayor of Jackson.

“We may be small in numbers when it comes to workers at the theater, but we have to be mighty,” said Tucker. “We are always thinking ahead to the next event.” 

All in all, the Michigan Theatre of Jackson still stands today in all its glory thanks to patrons, donors and volunteers who love what it does, and who work hard to keep it open now and into the future. For information on current events at the Michigan Theatre of Jackson call (517) 783-0962 or go to michgan.org.

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