On Christmas Eve, Russ Collins is hoarse. He didn’t get off the phone until 3am the previous morning.
The occasion: The State Theatre had chosen, along with approximately 300 other independent theaters around the country, to show one of the most controversial movies of 2014. In response to the planned Christmas day release of the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg comedy The Interview, hackers threatened attacks on any theater that showed the film, initially halting Sony’s plans to open the film in 3,000 theaters on December 25.
“It’s not the kind of movie that we typically show,” says Collins. “I completely understand why multiplex theater owners wouldn’t have wanted to take any chances. But we were in a position to be a little brave. And freedom of speech is something worth being a little brave about.” In his capacity as head of the Art House Convergence, an alliance of art house theaters across the U.S., Collins wrote to Sony, stating that Convergence members would be pleased to show the movie. Sony took him up on the offer, and phone calls from news outlets around the world began. The State Theatre’s importance endures, politically and locally.
The funkier cousin of the historic Michigan Theater, The State has long served as an adjunct to the movie palace’s two screening spaces, one of which is often used for live events. Yet earlier in the year, the State barely escaped a fate as office space.
Sound familiar? Back in 1979, the Michigan, too, teetered—on the brink of a glorious future as a food court. Originally designed and built by architect Maurice Finkel, the theater suffered a number of indignities over the years under the header of “improvement”—including a dropped ceiling to cover the elaborate plaster carvings overhead, and a snappy orange and blue color scheme to hide that stuffy old-fashioned gilt. The original Barton Theater Organ nearly became collateral damage.
That instrument, one of the few in the US to remain in its original theater home, played a big role in the Michigan’s rescue. Dr. Henry Aldrich, both a film scholar and theater organist, threw himself in front of the virtual wrecking ball, teaming up with Ann Arbor’s then-mayor Lou Belcher to save the Barton and the theater that housed it. Thanks to a check—written literally at the eleventh hour—by philanthropist Margaret Towsley, the Michigan was saved.
The recently created Michigan Theater Foundation enlisted the help of internationally renowned restoration architect Richard Frank to return the space to its original splendor. Russ Collins became executive director in 1982, and worked with the board and staff to move the Michigan forward. That included adding the Screening Room, a smaller theater with acoustics designed for watching movies—the main theater still shines as a live venue, but is less optimal, sound-wise, for film. And in 1989 the State became available for leasing.
Originally built as a movie exhibition space, the State has been carved up over the years. The slanting platform that looks like a raked stage actually covers former open space on its first floor, currently occupied by Urban Outfitters. Designed by architect Howard Crane, also responsible for the Opera House and Fox Theater in Detroit, the State was built in 1942 expressly to show movies. After several months of negotiation, a “condominium” agreement was reached: The Michigan owns the upstairs space where the theater currently lives, not the building. But in that process, Collins hopes to make the new spaces as optimal for movie-watching as the Screening Room.
“We’re so lucky to live in an area like Ann Arbor and the rest of Southeast Michigan,” says Collins, “where people care, are generous and philanthropic. How wonderful to have a community where restoration and operation of these two theaters is so important.”