Sundance Film Festival Shines at The Michigan Theatre

Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.
Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

There’s nothing like an old-fashioned downtown movie theatre. They bring the magic and personality of movies right into your backyard. The seats might be a little worn and there are fewer films to choose from, but when you have an afternoon off, or it starts raining and you duck inside to see what’s playing at 3:15 on a Tuesday, there’s no question that it’s far more pleasant than the 16-screen strip-mall cinaplex that’s twenty minutes out of town. And because of the smaller size of the theatre itself and shorter run-time for movies, it’s possible for these theatres to show movies that wouldn’t otherwise play in the area.

The downtown movie theatre has gone through some ups and downs since the Golden Age of American cinema in the 1940s and ‘50s, before televisions were in everybody’s living room. Sadly,  in many towns across the country, shuttered windows and empty marquees are all that remain of the movie palaces of yesteryear. That is, if they exist at all; many have been torn down or renovated so thoroughly that not even the ghosts remain.

But amid the closures and the ghosts, a few theatres still shine,  and we’re lucky to have one such right here in Ann Arbor: the renowned Michigan Theater.

The Barton Theatre Pipe Organ. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.
The Barton Theatre Pipe Organ. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

The Michigan was originally built in 1928. Designed by Detroit architect Maurice Finkel and constructed by the W.S. Butterfield Company (which operated several theatres in the state), the Michigan started out hosting vaudeville performances and silent films accompanied by a live orchestra and the famous Barton Theater Pipe Organ. The orchestra and organ fell into disuse with the advent of the “talkies” in the 1930s and 40s, and the theatre itself faced shrinking audiences through the 1960s, but held on until the 1970s, when a serious threat of demolition threw lovers of the Michigan into action.

Members of the community, including many organ enthusiasts, raised funds to save the theatre, and even convinced the city council to dissolve its mortgage debt. The theatre underwent full restoration in the 1980s to undo the damage of the preceding decades, and now the Michigan can be seen as it was meant to be: glorious. The Barton Organ is still there, and is played almost every day, making it one of the most-heard theatre organs in the country.

The interior of the theatre has been fully restored. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.
The interior of the theatre has been fully restored. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

One of the best things about the Michigan’s schedule is the fact that they have many special events, bringing original films and unique speakers. The Penny W. Stamps speaker series takes place every week as part of U of M’s School of Art and Design curriculum; family-friendly movies are shown on Sundays; currently, a series of Korean films is being shown. But one of the jewels in the Michigan’s crown is its status as a Sundance theatre: for four years running, the theatre has been chosen as one of the select official theatres for the Sundance Film Festival.

Image courtesy of FoxSearchlight.com
Image courtesy of FoxSearchlight.com

Sundance itself takes place in Utah, but every year 10 independent theaters are selected to host screenings of selections for the festival (other cities include Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, so Ann Arbor is in very good company). This year, the Michigan Theater will be premiering The East, a thriller starring Ellen Page, Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and Julia Ormond, about an operative for an elite private intelligence firm who goes deep undercover to infiltrate a mysterious anarchist collective.

You can check out this movie at the Michigan on January 31st. Sundance screenings also include special appearances by the filmmakers, and this year by Sundance Film Festival’s programming director, Trevor Groth. Since the Michigan will also be celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, it’s bound to be a particularly special evening. And to round out your Sundance experience at the Michigan, check out the screening of the Sundance Shorts on February 1st.

You can see these exciting films and more at the Michigan Theatre year round. Give ’em a visit, and prepare to make many more returns!

Nora Stone, Feature Writer