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Ann Arbor's vanishing screens: Why there are no multiplexes near the 'U'

Daily Arts Writer
Published December 1, 2010

Correction: This story originally stated that Fifth Quarter occupies the space once held by The Majestic. It actually occupies the space once held by a theater specializing in foreign films.

Well, Saturday night at eight o’clock
I know where I'm gonna go.
I’m a gonna pick my baby up
And take her to the picture show.
Everybody in the neighborhood
Is dressing up to be there too.
And we’re gonna have a ball,
Just like we always do.

So Motown sensation the Drifters crooned in the song “Saturday Night at the Movies” way back in 1964. It’s a Saturday night in 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You are not going to the movies. You can’t get to the movies. You have no car and it’s two degrees outside, so you don’t want to walk to the bus.

LSA senior Ali Phillips recalls being stranded her freshman year with a group of friends at Rave Cinemas in Ypsilanti. Her group had decided to take the bus to Meijer to go Christmas shopping and then walked the short distance to the theater to catch a quick flick.

“When we got out of the movies at nine o’clock, we didn’t realize the buses closed so early,” she said. “We had to call a cab.”

The two movie theaters closest to campus, the Michigan and the State, show mainly independent, classic or foreign films. In order to see a blockbuster, students must drive or take the bus to either Rave or the Goodrich Quality 16 on Jackson Road. But it wasn’t always this way.

The golden years of A2 movie houses

“It involves a little of history,” said LSA Lecturer Jonathan Marwil of Ann Arbor's movie theaters, the author of "A History of Ann Arbor," among other works.

Marwil said that back in the WWII era, at least 80 million Americans out of 150 million went to the movies once a week.

"Movies were a primary and inexpensive form of entertainment,” he said.

At that time, Ann Arbor was teeming with movie theaters. Two theaters on Main Street, the Wuerth and the Orpheum, were open in addition to the Michigan and the State. By the end of the 1940s, the Wuerth and the Orpheum had closed. The buildings they occupied on the 300 block of Main Street now house the restaurants Gratzi and The Chop House. Where the Maynard Street parking structure now stands, there used to be the Majestic, a grand movie palace fashioned out of the skeleton of a roller rink. The Majestic closed in 1942. Fifth Quarter nightclub occupies a space left empty by a theater that specialized in foreign films.

Relatively more recently, South University was home to yet another movie theater, the Campus. Built in the 1950s, the Campus continued to show first-run Hollywood films until it closed in 1987. A strip mall replaced it.

“Ann Arbor used to be one of half a dozen most important towns in the country to see film,” Marwil said. “Robert Altman came here several times to show his films. He didn’t go to Toledo. … He didn’t go to Princeton or Northwestern. He came to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor had this reputation deserved of a serious interest in film.”

Michigan’s central campus once housed a strong collection of student film societies, which reached their heights in the 1960s and ’70s. One such group was the Cinema Guild, which showed old movies and foreign films in the lecture halls.

“They were cheaper,” Marwil said. “You would never see an old film at any one of the main theaters.”

Film societies still exist today on campus. Most prominent is M-Flicks, which sporadically screens movies. But these groups are nowhere near as popular or relevant as they were back in their heydays.

At one point, the abundance of Ann Arbor film societies meant that you could see a movie any night of the week at the Modern Languages Building, Angell Hall or the Natural Science Building.