The Whitney Theater

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1994,
August 1994

Author: Grace Shackman

"An unbelievable gem"

Ted Heusel, radio personality and actor, calls the Whitney Theater "an unbelievable gem." He says the Whitney, located on the corner of Main and Ann from 1908 to 1955, was "the theater of southeast Michigan. It had the most perfect acoustics. You could whisper on the stage and they could hear you." In its day, that stage hosted such greats as Sarah Bernhardt, Nijinsky, and the Barrymores. Today its site is a parking lot.

The Whitney was originally Hill's Opera House, built in 1871 by George D. Hill, a local entrepreneur, after another building he owned on the site burned down. When he replaced the food and clothing stores and the hotel that the older building had housed, Hill decided to make room for a theater upstairs.

By then, Ann Arbor was large enough to need a big public hall, and Hill's location was perfect--right across from the courthouse square. Hill's Opera House opened August 10, 1871, with a benefit performance of a Civil War drama, "The Spy of Shiloh," performed by a cast of "prominent citizens." It played for five nights to sell-out crowds.

The opera house also hosted traveling shows, starring such greats as Edwin Booth. (Booth was reportedly booed off the stage because his brother, John Wilkes Booth, had assassinated President Lincoln.)

The theater thrived under Hill and, later, his son Harry. But it began to falter after Hill, suffering financial difficulties, sold it to a man from Syracuse, New York. Several absentee owners followed, all of them neglectful. Finally too expensive to repair, Hill's Opera House closed altogether.

Herman W. Pipp, a local architect and city alderman, is credited with the theater's revival. Asked to draw up renovation plans, he became interested in the problem of funding the project. Mutual friends arranged a meeting with Bert Whitney, who owned theaters in Chicago, Toronto, and Detroit.

Whitney agreed to buy the building. In 1906 he began renovations and repairs, and he added two stories to the three-story building, making the Whitney the largest theater in Michigan. Local contractors, the Koch Brothers, did the outside work. National experts were called in to finish the theater: Hiram Cornell as stage carpenter and Melbourne Moran of New York City for scenery construction. Since not all touring companies brought their own, Moran made nine basic sets--a fancy parlor, a plain "chamber," a kitchen, cottage, prison, garden, woods, street, and horizon. The new theater included three stories of dressing rooms, twenty-five in all. The fanciest, nearest the stage, had stars on the doors. Large changing rooms under the stage served the chorus. The public section of the theater was richly decorated with an Italian tile floor, walls of red burlap, three handsome French candelabra, red carpets, and red leather seats.

Above the main floor were two balconies and at the top a gallery with hard bench seats. These seats, the cheapest, could not be reserved. On the afternoon of performances, people seeking gallery seats--mostly young townsfolk and university students--would line up on Ann Street, climb a fire escape, and buy their tickets at a special window on the second balcony. A denizen of the gallery, Arthur Schlanderer, recalls, "You looked almost straight down. It's a wonder we didn't fall."

Like Hill's Opera House, the Whitney was launched with a gala opening, this one a performance of the play "Knight for Day." Whitney spent $175 to send his own fourteen-piece orchestra from Chicago to provide the music for it. He must have easily recouped his investment: main-floor tickets sold for the then astronomical price of $25. Gallery tickets were $1.

The Whitney operated in the heyday of touring theater productions. Before television or movies, the only way people could see shows was in live performance. Touring companies could take a show on the road for years before running out of audiences. Thanks to Bert Whitney, all the theater greats played Ann Arbor.

Working closely with the Klaw and Erlanger booking agency, Whitney made it clear that if they wanted their acts to play in Chicago and Detroit, they also had to include Ann Arbor in their plans. Old Whitney playbills read like a theater Who's Who: actors Ed Wynn, Katharine Cornell, and Helen Hayes, dancers Anna Pavlova, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. According to stories handed down to Ted Heusel, Maude Adams got chicken pox when she played here and had to stay in a "pest house" connected to University Hospital. Al Jolson's show had so many set changes, the sets had to be piled outside on Ann Street during his performance.

In addition to plays, from light comedy to Shakespeare, the Whitney hosted vaudeville, opera, dance, and lectures. Local talent also used the stage, including the Michigan Union Opera and the Junior Girls Plays. Pauline Kempf, who ran a music studio on Division with her husband, Reuben, got her professional start when friends and backers arranged for her to give a vocal concert at the Whitney. The concert raised enough money to allow her to go to Cincinnati to study. The town's young people loved the theater. Schlanderer remembers seeing Sigmund Romberg's "The Student Prince" with a friend who was so thrilled with the show that he quit school to join the chorus.

Don Mclntyre had been the theater's head usher when it opened, and in 1915 he bought the Whitney in partnership with James Murnan. Murnan, who had managed the Cook Hotel (predecessor to the Allenel and the Ann Arbor Inn), took over the Whitney Hotel next door (where all the glamorous touring stars stayed), while Mclntyre concentrated on the theater. (Murnan's son, James Jr., for many years manager of the U-M's Mendelssohn Theater, was the source of much of Heusel's Whitney lore.)

Don Mclntyre's older brother, Frank, was a Broadway star who often played the Whitney. Don lived in a big house on Division near Huron (now Catholic Social Services), and Frank lived there between performances and then permanently after he retired in 1939. Schlanderer, who as a kid caddied at Barton Hills, remembers that the Mclntyres played golf almost every day in the summer. He describes them as physical opposites--Don as very skinny, Frank so big, "you wondered he could reach around his belly."

George Sallade, who lived across Division from the Mclntyres, remembers Don as a great promoter of downtown. He was a very dapper dresser, Sallade recalls, who wore a Panama hat and used a cigarette holder. Morrie Dalitz remembers that Don ate at the old Round Table on Huron and hung out at the Elks, on Main at William (once the Maynard mansion, most recently the Civic Theater, and now a parking lot). When he died, his heirs gave the Whitney Theater organ to the Elks.

Movies gradually crept into the Whitney's lineup. In 1914, after much discussion, the theater started to show movies on Sundays, promising that they would be "good clean pictures that anyone would be glad to see." The aim was to keep townspeople from going to Toledo for Sunday amusement. The first time a movie was the attraction was in 1917, a showing of D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," accompanied by a twenty-piece orchestra.

During the Depression, big road companies were no longer profitable, and the Whitney closed in 1930. In 1934, it was reopened as a movie theater, and two years later Mclntyre leased it for ninety-nine years to the Butterfield movie chain.

The Whitney didn't come close to living out the lease. Butterfield, which also had the much newer and larger Michigan, Orpheum, and State theaters, ran only "B" movies at the Whitney--adventures, cowboy movies, serials. As a Michigan Daily article commented, the theater went "from grand opera to the horse variety."

The fire marshall closed the Whitney in 1952 and ordered it torn down a few years later. The Butterfield chain talked of building a large community theater on the spot but never did. The county bought the land and used it as an exercise area for inmates of the jail next door on Ann Street. Since the jail moved in 1978 to Hogback Road, the space has been used for parking.