Michael Hauser didn't grow up in Detroit, but he understands the appeal of its downtown movie palaces. As a kid in the 1950s, Hauser used to take the bus to downtown Grand Rapids to see first-run movies with his parents.
"It was the whole experience," he remembers. "You'd be cheerfully greeted by a doorman, and then by the usher who tore your ticket ... More than just previews, you'd see a newsreel, a short subject, a cartoon, too. A curtain would open to start the show, which was usually a double feature."
Hauser, 56, marketing director at the Detroit Opera House, has recently found an outlet for his love of theaters past. A book, "Detroit's Downtown Movie Palaces" (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99), came out in November, and he is co-curator of an exhibit that opens Saturday at the Detroit Historical Museum.
The most ornate of the theaters, like the landmark Fox, were built during the silent movie era in the 1920s. Another surge came after World War II. In the late 1940s and 1950s, there were more than 100 movie theaters within the city limits. Today there are two.
According to Hauser, every Detroit neighborhood had a theater, often more than one. Viewers remained loyal to individual houses, especially when promotions and giveaways were involved. The exhibit includes a set of dishes, including one emblazoned with the name of the Martha Washington Theatre in Hamtramck.
Aside from the Historical Museum, items on display in "Detroit: The 'Reel' Story" come from a variety of local sources. Photographs and lobby cards related to black films and theaters came from Detroiter James Wheeler. The Ilitch Holdings Corporate Archives provided several items from the Fox, including a 1953 usher's uniform.
Hand-painted metal signs for the 1932 movies "Society Girl" and "Fast Companions" once hung beneath the Fox marquee.
Among the other highlights: a circa 1928 Mayan theater seat from the Fisher; decorative plasterwork from the Riviera, National and Madison; a 1917 light fixture from the Madison; plus vintage popcorn containers, candy boxes and tickets.
Perhaps the most significant artifacts are the office desk and door of C. Howard Crane, the architect who built many of the city's greatest theaters, including the Fox, Capitol, and United Artists, along with Orchestra Hall.
Since Crane studied the opera houses of Europe, he designed the theaters in a variety of styles. "Each had a personality," Hauser says, with the Adams and Madison neoclassical, the State Italian Renaissance, and the United Artists Spanish Gothic.
Working for Michigan's Goodrich Theatre chain in the 1970s, Hauser had a front row
seat for the decline of the downtown theaters. Despite huge successes with movies like "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and "Willard," most succumbed to population shifts and rising energy costs and were torn down.
One of the more dramatic parts of the exhibit involves the newspaper listings from different decades showing the number of theaters and the eventual shift to the suburbs.
While movie palaces have been replaced by sterile multiplexes, Hauser sees hope in the future, especially from local exhibitors such as MJR and Phoenix Theatres. "Some of them have the right idea," he says. "By bringing back large screens, customer service, comfortable seating, even things like the curtains, they hint at the grandeur that patrons used to expect."