The People's Ballroom: Seeing the Light, Taking the Heat

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 2006,
November 2006

Author: Mike Gould

The first time I heard the term "politically correct," I was sitting on John Sinclair's bed. It was mid December 1972, and the week before, the Light Opera had put on a light show at the People's Ballroom.

I was seriously into doing lightshows at the time. Gather up some used slide and overhead projectors, mix well with colored oils and a variety of home-made psychedelic apparatus, and voila: a swirling visual treat just right to shine above a stage filled with sweaty rock and rollers. The Light Opera consisted at the time of myself, aided and abetted by Mike Lutz (not the rocker, the lab tech) and photographer Henry Seggarman.

Before the show I had borrowed my mom's camera and shot a bunch of logos of the Tribal Council, the umbrella organization through which Sinclair's Rainbow People's Party (RPP) supervised a host of countercultural activities-the Ballroom, the Tribal Network (the loose collective of the Ann Arbor Sun newspaper, and other media entities), the People's Defense Committee (which provided legal aid), and various other groups. Along with the logos, slides from the 1972 Blues and Jazz Festival, and the usual assortment of psychedelia, our show had featured my collection of tasteful classical nudes, garnered from my travels through the art museums of Europe.

That was what got us in trouble. I was being called to account before the Tribal Council's Music & Ballroom Committee, which met in the big house that the Rainbow People lived in on Hill Street. Sinclair's bedroom was the only meeting space available that day. Sinclair had come to town in the 1968 and formed the White Panther Party. By 1971, the year I graduated from Kalamazoo College and returned to Ann Arbor, the White Panthers had evolved into the Rainbow People's Party.
The on-line introduction to the John and Leni Sinclair Papers collection, now housed at the Bentley Historical Library, describes the party thusly:

"Rainbow People's Party embraced Marxism-Leninism as its guide to action and concentrated on building a strong local political organization to promote the revolutionary struggle for a "communal, classless, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist...culture of liberation..."

The "strong local political organization" was the above-mentioned Tribal Council, and the Light Opera was up on charges of sexism.

The People's Ballroom wasn't owned by the Rainbow People. It shared a former Cadillac dealership with the Community Center Project, a federally-funded group of agencies consisting of Drug Help, Ozone House, and the Free People's Clinic. While the actual political ins and outs are too complicated to go into here (that would take a book, perhaps two), suffice it to say that the Ann Arbor Tribal Council Music & Ballroom Committee was a committee of dedicated lefties, and politics were never far from the matter at hand.

My own involvement was as non-political as I could make it. I saw myself as a simple artiste bent on photons and merriment. I was a child of the upper middle class (I grew up on the other side of Washtenaw from the Rainbow house, three blocks up Hill St.) and while of libertarian inclinations, I was in no way a radical.

Given John Sinclair's own legendary love of marijuana, his description of the Ballroom in a letter to the Musician's Union may seem surprising:

"Ann Arbor People's Ballroom is a non-profit, community-operated rock and roll dance center ... It has been funded under a federal grant designed to help combat the hard drug problem in Ann Arbor's rainbow community by providing activities and programs which give young sisters and brothers a constructive, positive context for their energy."

Note that Sinclair and the Rainbow folks (and almost everyone else in Ann Arbor) made a clear distinction between hard drugs (heroin, speed, etc.) and the non-menace of reefer. The Ballroom was at 502 E. Washington Street, where the Tally Hall parking structure is now. It was the result of years of planning, politicking, and involvement from the local hip community. Members of several local bands assisted in the construction, including the Wild Boys. I was in a band at the time, and remember making it to at least one of the pounding parties, after which we all went skinny dipping in Dolph Park.

The ballroom opened September 1st, 1972. The front offices held the various community center organizations and an open meeting room, and the ballroom was in the back, where the former Cadillac garages were. There was a continuing problem with street people hanging out in the meeting room, and a lot of discussion among the agencies as to how to deal with the issue. This would have serious repercussions, as we shall see.

The ballroom was around 100' wide by 40' deep, with a raised stage area at the east end and food and drink at the west end. A team of local volunteers had built an incredibly beautiful suspended dance floor for the Ballroom, and all were delighted with its dance-worthiness. The grand opening "tribal stomps" featured the Wild Boys, the
Mojo Boogie Band and Guardian Angel on Friday and Petunia (a jazz ensemble), Stone School Road, and the Rainbow People's house band, the Mighty UP, on Saturday. The total take was $928.50 and the place was packed, with lines out into the street.

The Ballroom had a total capacity of 540, was open Fridays and Saturdays, and was filled most of those nights. During the week there were art shows and other activities. I remember being at the Saturday opening show, and being blown away by how freakin' cool the whole thing was. Fillmore Ann Arbor! Just down the street from my church! (That would be the First Methodist Church, where I did time as Boy Scout, acolyte, and junior choir member).

Food was provided by the People's Food Committee, the RPP's Psychedelic Rangers provided security, and the Friday show was broadcast on WNRZ, the hip radio station of the time. In between bands, the Tribal Council Communications Committee interviewed musicians and community workers, and presented the whole ballroom story live on the radio.

The Ballroom became a must-play venue for bands across the state. At the Bentley Historical Library there are 76 boxes of cultural artifacts donated by John and Leni Sinclair from this era. In a folder called "Peoples Ballroom" are long lists of bands clamoring for dates, as well as the contracts for those bands that appeared. Also found are notes from Ballroom committee meetings, on which some of this story is based.

Dr. Arwulf Arwulf remembers the People's Ballroom

My most enduring memory of the People's Ballroom is of Mighty Joe Young's Chicago Blues Band. This was so different from anything us young white kids had ever experienced before. To stand in close proximity to this powerful blues engine, the punchy percussion, the electric lead, rhythm and bass guitars augmented by a no-nonsense alto saxophonist who never removed his hat and a wild trumpeter who screamed and hollered with abandon, this changed me permanently, and I'm sure that everyone else present that night was similarly altered for life."

The man who set the building on fire was a black Vietnam War veteran who later admitted that he wanted to be a hero but then couldn't extinguish the blaze in time, having set it in a room filled with cans of paint and turpentine. Knowing he had some problems left over from the war, I was not surprised when I heard he'd inadvertently torched the place. There was something else that might have exacerbated his problems. I vividly recall a scrawny little southern cracker hassling the hell out of him for being black, only weeks prior to the fire.

We were all hanging out on the overstuffed furniture in the front of the Community Center and this little shit was making the most incredibly offensive comments regarding the man's beautiful dark brown flesh. I remember the look on the black man's face as he bottled up his anger, and the tension I felt in the air, it was suffocating. His white girlfriend confronted the chump, angrily pointed out the fact that the individual he was hassling was a human being and ultimately chased the fool out of there.

On the wall of the Community Center was a big photograph of George Jackson. Peaking on my first acid trip after the last night of the Blues & Jazz Festival 1972, I'd stood in front of that picture for about an hour. Contemplating it again once the racist knucklehead had left the building, I remember asking myself why this poisonous racism was sullying our socially progressive space. It was a reminder that we all had our work cut out for us. And we still do."

--Dr. Arwulf Arwulf

The Ballroom was custom-made for light shows, so naturally we wanted to do a show there. My connection in was a high school student named Hugh Hitchcock, who was a phenomenal Moog synthesizer player. He had a band called Pyramus and I got them a gig at the Ballroom on 12-8-72 with the proviso that the Light Opera would accompany them.

To reach the Ballroom, you walked down the alley between the wings of the main building and entered through a small ticket-taking enclosure. Atop the enclosure was the area for the lightshow crew, accessible via a ladder. Which meant we had to pass up all our heavy projectors, slides, and other equipment before the show, hauling it all down thereafter. We had a wheel with holes in it spinning in front of the slide projectors, so we could flash the slides through colored filters, and the slides would flicker back and forth from one projector's output to the other. That way we could juxtapose nude females with nude males in a (to me, at least) humorous suitably-psychedelic fashion. And so, on the night Pyramus played, the first thing that greeted concert-goers was a big slide of the Tribal Council graphic, backed by naked people flickering in and out.

This, I thought, was pretty hilarious. But alas, I was politically incorrect. It seemed there was also a People's Lightshow Committee that I was unaware of, made up of a cadre of women who used to do lightshows at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Hard-core politicos, they didn't find our show funny at all.

They called us on it at the meeting on John Sinclair's bed. We (myself and Henry Seggarman) took a lot of flack from the cadre sisters (all the Rainbow people were brothers and sisters), who were incensed that we had the unmitigated audacity to feature naked women in our little presentation. The nude women in question were Aphrodite, the three Graces, and other alabaster figures familiar to anyone who has taken Western Art 101. The point was raised that nude men (Apollo, David, the Laocoön Group, etc.) were also involved, but somehow the cadre sisters missed seeing those.

There was much discussion of what was politically correct here, my first exposure to the term. There was much made of the idea that the show should reflect the community as a whole (as defined by the RPP cadre), not just be one group's (admittedly cockamamie) take on art and society.

At one point in the meeting, John's 5-year old daughter Sunny, wandered in looking for scissors. John asked her where they were the last time she saw them, and she said that John had them the last time, using them to cut up the peyote buttons. The upshot was that we got kicked out of the Ballroom. Which was a good thing, because the next week it burned down.

The Knock-Down Party Band and Merlin were on the bill for December 15, 1972, and a fire started in the basement. Everyone evacuated safely, and the bands even managed to get their equipment out. But the Ballroom and Community Center were toast.

According to the Ann Arbor Sun, the firemen pretty much stood by and let it burn. While it was certainly true that the whole operation, being of non-traditional brown rice longhair tie-dyed hippy origin, was not beloved by the local power structure, Joe Tiboni remembers the story a bit differently. He says the fire began in the basement of the front part of the building where the offices were (the Ballroom in the back was on a cement slab). When the firemen arrived, the fire, accelerated by silk screen solvent ("rocket reducer") used in the production of posters, had engulfed the entire ceiling and there wasn't anything anyone could have done.

I heard about the disaster the next morning when I went to pick up my week's food from the People's Food Coop. I was majorly bummed, as was the entire community. As I recall, the cause of the blaze was a very disturbed street person who hung around the Community Center. The story I heard was that he started the fire so he could report it and become a hero. He came running out of the basement yelling "Fire!" and grabbed the only fire extinguisher in the building. But the fire was already out of control and that was it for the Ballroom and Community Center.

Efforts were made to resurrect it, with concerts under the Ballroom name held in East Quad. The four main agencies at the Community Center, Ozone House, Drug Help, Free People's Clinic and the Community Center Project were housed temporarily at the former Canterbury House location on E. William St. Eventually all moved to more permanent quarters and all but Ozone House have long since been absorbed into other agencies or disbanded.

Disbanded as well was the People's Ballroom. It had a brief life; three and a half months of rock and roll, peace, love, and (mostly) understanding.

I took away from the experience a determination to continue my artistic tendencies, while avoiding contact with politicos as much as possible. I went on to play bass and guitar in a bunch of fun yet unsuccessful bands, doing lightshows until changing times made that impossible, and finally evolving to doing Mac computer support, web work, writing, and photography. And sometimes, when I take a digital picture, I think about how it would look flashing in colors above a band somewhere, with some nudes tossed in, just for grins.

Thanks Joe Tiboni for his insights and memories, and to Arwulf for taking the time to write down his recollections. And a big "Righteous, dude!" to John Sinclair for making the early 70's an interesting time in Ann Arbor, and for the foresight of donating his archives to the Bentley before his house in New Orleans burned down.

Below are photograph captions from the original print edition, also available from the author's website at: Mondodyne.

Caption 1: The picture above shows various Community Center members posed in front of the building before the renovation. This is from the Ann Arbor Sun newspaper, 7-27-71. According to Joe Tiboni, those pictured are: (On the left of the door) Laura [last name unknown], Matt Lampe, Joe Tiboni. (Right of the Door): Nancy Lessin (front row) Tanner, Michael Pollack, Robin Giber and Blue. Between Tanner and Pollack, Gayle Johnson. Others unknown. Photo by David Fenton. Photo courtesy of the John and Leni Sinclair papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Caption 2: The photo above, taken during an art show at the Ballroom, shows John Sinclair on the left and Walden Simper in the foreground, flanked by Bob Sheffield (standing), others unknown. Photographer unknown, but probably David Fenton. Photo courtesy of the John and Leni Sinclair papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

The Latke versus the Hamantasch

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1999,
December 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

Sophisticated debates on a silly subject

The latke and the hamantasch, two traditional Jewish holiday foods, were also the unlikely subjects of debates held at the U-M Hillel Society in the 1960s and 1970s and then at the Jewish Community Center from 1988 to 1994.

"It was absolutely nothing serious," recalls participant Chuck Newman. Each dish had two defenders who would argue for the superiority of their chosen food, often citing evidence from their professions or specialties.

"Sophisticated people arguing in a sophisticated way on a silly subject" is how longtime moderator Carl Cohen, a U-M philosophy professor, describes the events.

The latke, a potato pancake, is often eaten at Hanukkah, a Jewish festival celebrated in December. Because it's cooked in oil, it's considered a symbol of the one day's supply of oil that miraculously kept a menorah burning for eight days after a Jewish army took Jerusalem back from the Syrians in 165 B.C.

The hamantasch, a three-sided pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds, is eaten at Purim, which falls in February or March. It is meant to resemble the hat worn by Haman, who advised the Persian king Ahasuerus to destroy the Jews; his plot was thwarted by the queen, Esther, who was a Jew.

The idea of-the holiday debate originated at the University of Chicago and quickly spread to other campuses. Herman Jacobs, head of Hillel at the time, introduced it to Ann Arbor in the 1960s.

Cohen recalls that he chose participants for their "willingness to engage in whimsy—flights of fancy—and be downright silly." The debaters lived up to that mission. Computer scientist Bernie Galler remembers that the late James McConnell, psychologist and editor of the Worm Runners Digest, talked of the effects of feeding prunes to his rats. McConnell packed the audience with friends wearing T-shirts with a logo for his side; at an appropriate moment, they tore open their shirts to reveal the logos. The late Bennett Cohen, a professor of veterinary medicine, used slides of animals from his research, with altered captions, to show the allegedly dire effects of whichever food he was against.

Rabbi Robert Dobrusin used biblical arguments to show that the fruit involved in Adam and Eve's fall was really a potato. Rabbi Robert Levy took off his rabbinical robes to reveal a green doctor's coat and offered medical charts that, he claimed, proved hamantaschen were healthier. Surgeon Lazar Greenfield warned that humans have a "grease gland" that could be activated by eating too many latkes, and Lana Pollack, then a state senator, read a Michigan Senate resolution proclaiming that the latke was best.

Chuck Newman ran a negative campaign—"I juggled a latke, showing how it fell apart," he recalls. He also demonstrated how oily the latke was by putting one in a balloon and squeezing out the oil. "But I was faking, because it had oil in it already," he admits.

After a chance for rebuttal and questions from the audience, a vote was taken. The side that received the loudest applause won. The debaters and audience would then adjourn for refreshments—latkes and hamantaschen.

—Grace Shackman


The Aura Inn

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1999,
Summer 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

The heart of Fredonia

"I'm surprised at how many people say, 'I met my husband at a dance at your dad's place,' or 'I met my wife at a dance there,'" says Billie Sodt Mann, whose father owned the Pleasant Lake House from 1925 to 1943. A bar and restaurant now known as the Aura Inn, the Pleasant Lake House was the center of Fredonia, a hamlet that in the nineteenth century was large enough to have its own post office. Many people in the area have happy memories of swimming, fishing, picnicking, and dancing there.

Situated on Pleasant Lake, in the middle of Freedom Township, the inn began in a two-story house that was built about 1880 by German immigrant Jacob Lutz. Since Fredonia was a pleasant stopping point between Ann Arbor and Jackson, and the lake an enjoyable place to relax, Lutz turned the front part of his house into a saloon and grocery store and rented upstairs rooms to travelers.

The next owner, David Schneider, added a dance hall upstairs. In the early 1920s, when guests began arriving by automobile, he dismantled the barn and used the wood to build a bigger dance hall, with a high, beamed ceiling, down by the lake. The hall boasted a hardwood floor, a loft where bands played, tall windows to let in light, and two wood stoves in opposite corners for heat.

Manny Sodt bought the inn in 1925 and moved the dance hall next to the house (it took a whole summer, with relatives and volunteers helping) and added electricity and central heating. The spot by the lake became a campground and boat rental; abandoned waiting rooms for the interurban trains, which had recently been discontinued, were moved to the site and made into vacation cabins. A former policeman (he was Ann Arbor's first motorcycle cop), Sodt enforced rules of good conduct. "No one did anything bad. You'd quiet down or you knew where you were going: to jail," recalls Mann.

On weekends the grounds were used for all-day picnics, weddings, or family reunions, with dances in the evenings. "Friday was old-timers' night. They did square dances and waltzes," remembers Mann. "On Saturday it was more modern. The bands didn't have a name; it was 'this guy and that guy.'" The Friday night crowd tended to live nearby; Saturday night dances attracted younger people from farther away. Mann sold tickets while her older sister, Ginnie, helped their mother sell hot dogs and coffee during intermission.

In failing health from a weak heart, her father sold his place in 1943. He died the day the papers were signed. The new owner, Ray Hoener, installed an antique bar—which is still there—in the dance hall. Rich Diamond, the present owner, took over from Vicky and John Weber, who owned the place from 1965 to 1978.

County commissioner Mike DuRussel worked for the last two owners. "I learned my diplomacy cracking heads and pouring drinks," he jokes. The Webers were deeply rooted in the community, and they attracted a crowd of locals with lunch specials and weekly euchre and pool tournaments. They also sponsored a Pleasant Lake Inn baseball team—most of the players drove beer trucks for a living—that won several championships in the Manchester league.

Rich Diamond and three of his friends bought the bar in 1978 and renamed it the Aura Inn ("Aura," he says, is short for "An Unusual Roadside Attraction"). They dispensed with lunch, opened at 4 p.m., and hired loud rock bands. In the early 1980s, DuRussel recalls, the inn was very popular—"There'd be people five deep at the bar"—and too noisy for him to hear customers' orders. "We had to read lips," he says.

With an increased awareness that drinking and driving don't mix, the partygoers have tapered off, and the bar is now more the neighborhood place it once was. The kitchen was closed a lot while Diamond was negotiating a possible sale of the inn. But the deal fell through in May, and Diamond is now reopening the inn as a full restaurant.

—Grace Shackman

Meredith Bixby

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1998,
Summer 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

"The puppeteers looked like giants"

During Meredith Bixby's career as a puppeteer, which lasted from the 1930s to the 1980s, up to a quarter million children a year saw his shows. The Saline resident wrote the scripts, created the puppets, sets, and props, trained other puppeteers, and booked his shows. His wife, Thyra, made the costumes.

Before taking his productions on the road, Bixby would put on annual preview shows for Saline kids at his studio in the Saline Opera House on South Ann Arbor Street.

"We'd come into the room and sit facing the black curtain," laughs Lisa Laramee. "The lights would go off, and I'd watch entranced as marionettes performed The Wizard of Oz, or The Magic Fish.

"When it was over, the lights would go on and the puppeteers would emerge to take a bow. So real was the experience that the puppeteers looked like giants"

Schools all over the country booked Bixby year after year. "They didn't worry," says Bixby. "They knew they would get classic stories with carefully chosen classical music."

Now in his late eighties, Bixby has been spending his time repairing his puppets, which will go on permanent display soon at the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce office at 141 East Michigan Avenue. He lives in a modest ranch in Saline, a house filled with art and books. His enthusiasm for his life's work is apparent in his conversation.

He still has a booming voice, which he would modify in performances so that it "could be the youngest boy, or the biggest, or the meanest, and reach to the last aisle."

In the early days, Bixby traveled all over the country to put on live performances. But as requests grew, he limited his bookings to nearby states. Life also got easier after he began taping his shows because then others could put them on. He enlisted family members, as well as local notables such as WAAM's Ted Heusel, to do the voices.

"You just followed the tape," remembers Bob Zorn, who took a break from college in the 1960s to work as a puppeteer and put on a Bixby show for a season. "But you had to be coordinated. The set was complicated and weighed about half a ton." Zorn traveled with one other puppeteer, towing a minivan with the equipment, and putting on two or three shows a day. Bixby showed up now and then to make repairs or just to see how things were going.

Creating the shows took both artistic and engineering skill—Bixby had both. He started college at Wayne State University studying engineering, but liked drawing better, so he switched to art. While attending the Art Students League in New York, he worked at the public library. One day, while perusing the shelves, he came across a book of plays for puppet shows. For fun, he made the puppets for Dr. Faustus. During a month's vacation, he gave a few performances. "People were just fascinated," Bixby recalls. "I decided to become a professional."

After World War II, Bixby moved to Saline, where his grandfather had lived, and where his dad, a dentist, had practiced for fifteen years. He read widely—classic children's literature, fairy tales, folk tales — to get ideas. While the crews were on the road, he created the next season's show. He designed posters and scenery and created incredible puppets: jugglers who really juggled, cossack dancers who lifted their feet in unison, fish that swam in and out of coral reefs, and a puppet who smoked.

Bixby retired in 1982 with a farewell show in his studio. In the final years of his career he filmed his shows, and videos of them will be included in the permanent exhibit of his work.

People often told Bixby that given his success at promoting his shows, he could have made more money as a salesman. But he wasn't interested. "I was one of the few people who made a living [at puppetry], and I loved doing it," he says.

—Grace Shackman

"Watch out! Here I come!"

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

When kids could sled down city streets all winter long

Sledding down the middle of city streets? No parents in their right mind would let their children do that today, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was done with the blessing of the city. Every neighborhood had at least one steep street blocked off for sledding, and often there were several within walking distance.

"Oh, it was fun, really fun," recalls Walter Metzger, who sledded on three such streets: Koch from Third to Main, Division from Packard to Hill, and Eighth from Washington to Liberty. "The city blocked the streets with a big long [saw] horse. They also blocked the side streets, but they'd leave room for the residents to drive through. It was very safe. I never remember anybody having an accident with a car."

Al Gallup, who sledded down Highland and Awixa, recalls that the city brought out a sawhorse at the beginning of the season and left it at the side of the road except when the kids were actually sledding. Hills on Broadway and Felch were popular spots. Bob Ryan, who lived on Longshore, used to sled from the top of his street clear down to Argo Pond and, if possible, right out onto the frozen water. "There was no traffic," he recalls. "The only house was Mr. Saunders's of the canoe livery, and he knew to be careful [when driving]."

If there were no sawhorses, one of the kids would stand guard at potentially dangerous intersections, warning sledders when they needed to stop. Braking was done by dragging feet, swerving onto lawns, or, if all else failed, jumping off just before a collision. Harlan Otto, who used to slide down Koch Street, remembers they didn't necessarily stop even at Main. "We'd have someone at the bottom [of Koch] to look out. One time we went down and around the comer on Main all the way to Madison."

Flexible Flyers were the sleds of choice because "you could steer them," explains Coleman Jewett. "Others you had to lean on to guide." Brad Stevens recalls that Flexible Flyers came in different lengths: "The longer it was, the more prestigious." John Hathaway recalls that his Flexible Flyer (which he still has hanging in his garage) was purchased at Hertler's, and that as a special deal the Hertler brothers cut him a piece of rope to tie on the front.

"Not many had sleds," recalls Otto, so "we used to ride double. The bigger kids would get on the bottom and the little on top." Kids sometimes went down a hill on a number of sleds chained together, sticking their toes between the opening where the sled was steered. Occasional mishaps occurred, but the victims all lived to tell the tale.

Larger groups of kids rode on toboggans and bobsleds, the latter often homemade. Hathaway recalls that the bobsleds went a lot faster and could be dangerous if you left a limb dangling. Jewett says that a family in his neighborhood, the Bakers, had a toboggan that held twelve or fourteen kids. "It was fun. Just don't sit in front or back," he warns.

Sometimes kids would enhance their sledding routes by pouring water in the tracks. Metzger recalls that "Bob Muehlig used to take buckets of water and pour it on the curb to make runs for a bobsled." Ryan remembers pouring water on Longshore in new snow so toboggan tracks would freeze at night. "We'd go like the gun the next morning," he recalls.

The kids would come home sopping wet after sledding. "We all had coal furnaces with registers on the floor. We'd take off our clothes to dry off," Metzger recalls. "The adults hated the cold and snow, but kids loved it," says Jewett. That part is probably the same today.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: John Hathaway still has the Flexible Flyer his parents bought at Hertler's.

Chad Williams

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, July 1998,
July 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

WCBN's Apostle of Country Music

"Country music is real stories, about real people, about real situations," says WCBN deejay Chad Williams. "It's a refined tradition with many branches and different in­fluences. [But] it's looked down on, especially in this town."

Williams, who calls himself "a farmer in a nonfarm town," is out to change that. As "the Funky Farmer," he co-hosts the free-form U-M station's Down Home Show, explaining and popularizing country music to his Ann Arbor listeners.

Osias Zwerdling's Art Deco Sign

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1997,
August 1997

Author: Grace Shackman

From 1915 to 1943, Osias Zwerdling ran a fur store at 215-211 East Liberty. Sometime in the 1920s, he had an Art Deco sign—a twi­light scene of a wolf baying at the moon—painted on an ex­terior wall. Zwerdling always took pride in the fact that the sign was painted by a profes­sional artist, and its "painterly quality," says architectural conservator Ron Koenig, is probably the reason no one ever painted over it. But the main reason a group of peo­ple recently raised $12,000 to restore it is Zwerdling's role as patriarch of Ann Arbor's Jewish community.

The Story of the Schwaben Halle

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2002,
December 2002

Author: Grace Shackman

On the eve of World War I, German Americans Built a virtual Palace of ethnic solidarity

The Schwaben Halle at 215 South Ashley was sold several years ago, but the Schwaebischer Unterstuetzungs Verein (“Swabian Support Association”), the group that built it, is still alive and kicking. Better known simply as the “Schwaben Verein,” the club was founded in 1888 by recent German immigrants. Although the local German community is by now pretty well assimilated, the Verein survives, in large part because of the fun the members and their families have sharing their common ancestry. “Eat, drink, and dance. What else do Germans do?” laughs member Walter Metzger. At the spring Bockbierfest, says president Art French, “the food is different, but we still eat and drink and dance. Any excuse for a party.”

Swabians, who take their name from a medieval kingdom in southern Germany, began immigrating to Ann Arbor as early as 1825, usually when there were economic or political problems in Germany. The 1880 immigrants were escaping the effects of Bismarck’s rule, as well as an economic depression, choosing Ann Arbor because Germans from earlier migrations were already here. But although other Germans in town helped them get established, the new arrivals felt a need for mutual support in the new country.

Tailor Gottlieb Wild, who was born near Stuttgart and served a four-year apprenticeship before coming to America, brought the idea of a Swabian club to Ann Arbor. His story, as related in Samuel Beakes’s 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County, is like that of many other Ann Arbor German immigrants: “He came to America when but seventeen years of age, and made his way to Ann Arbor, having relatives in this city, who had come to the New World in 1835.”

In 1887 Wild moved to Toledo to work as a journeyman tailor. He became involved with a Swabian social group there, and when he returned to Ann Arbor the following year to open his own shop, he encouraged his fellow Swabians to form their own association. (Wild’s tailor shop, like the Schwaben Verein, proved impressively durable--it evolved into a popular campus-area men’s store that survived until 1988.)

The Schwaben Verein’s official purpose was to provide a primitive kind of mutual health and life insurance: members paid a $1 initiation fee and 30¢ a month in dues, and in times of need the group would help out with hospital or burial expenses. But from the beginning, the real attraction was the camaraderie. “It was a way to be with people who spoke their language, followed their customs, who had the same outlook on life,” explains president French.

The group’s first meeting was held June 22, 1888, on the second floor of Wild’s tailor shop. Business was conducted entirely in German, a tradition that would continue for nearly a century. Many of Ann Arbor’s retail establishments were owned and run by Germans, so as the group grew they easily found other places to meet. They moved from Wild’s shop to rooms in Michael Staebler’s hotel, the American House (now the Earle, at Washington and Ashley), and when that in turn proved inadequate, to rented rooms above Arnold’s Jewelry Store on Main Street.

In 1894, just six years after its founding, the group was financially secure enough to purchase a building, the former Wagner’s blacksmith shop on Ashley between Washington and Liberty. All seven members of the executive committee signed the mortgage. They reserved the second floor for their meetings and rented the downstairs to blacksmith Henry Otto (who was better known locally as the leader of Otto’s Band).

In 1908 the Schwaben Verein bought a second property: the Relief Fire Company Park, south of Madison and west of what is now Fifth Street, then on the outskirts of the city. (Since 1888 the fire department had been changing over to professional firefighters, and volunteer companies were phased out.) The park was used for open-air events. “Parades and picnics were memorable occasions,” the Ann Arbor News reported. “Entire families turned out, the children to enjoy games and sports while their elders talked on and on about the ‘old country’ and the occurrences in their lives in their adopted land.”

Hardware store owner Christian Schlenker, who was president of the Verein at the time, is credited with spearheading the construction of a permanent headquarters. “Entirely due to his persistence and influence, they decided to build the new Swabian Hall,” W. W. Florer states in volume 1 of Early Michigan Settlements (1941).

The key was a deal between the group and Mack & Co., then Ann Arbor’s largest department store, at 220–224 South Main. Walter Mack agreed to rent most of the planned structure, including the two upper floors and part of the basement. Mack, though the son of a German immigrant, was not a member of the Verein (“Mr. Mack was never affiliated with any fraternal organizations but has concentrated his energies and attention upon his business interests and family life,” writes Beakes), and he did not help with construction costs. However, he agreed to build a steam heating plant, pay fire insurance for the whole building, and provide water for the sprinkler system.

Photograph of construction workers pausing
from their work to pose in front of the half-completed Schwaben Halle

Construction of the Schwaben Verein, 1914.

In May 1914 the blacksmith shop was torn down, and construction began on the new building. Local historian Carol Mull, who has done extensive research on the building, finds it probable that some of the brick from the blacksmith shop was reused in the new building. Architect George Scott designed the Schwaben Halle, and Julius Koernke, a German immigrant who had settled in Ann Arbor in 1890, served as contractor.

Enclosed walkways connected the third and fourth floors with Mack’s Main Street store, and the buildings’ basements were joined by a tunnel. Mack used the basement for storage and the upstairs for a dining room, a beauty shop (the holes from the plumbing were still there when the Verein sold the building), and a big toy display at Christmas. The Ashley Street storefront was rented to Hagen and Jedel Men’s Clothing.

The Verein reserved the second floor for its own activities. A large front room was used for dancing and banquets; it had a stage at one end for plays and performances. There was a dressing room behind the stage and beyond that the bar and kitchen. Beautiful woodwork, tin ceilings, a fireplace, and a stained-glass front window with the Schwaben name on it all added to the hall’s beauty. In 1988, to celebrate the Verein’s hundredth anniversary, some of the members donated stained glass for the side windows and transoms.

During World War I, when other German groups were fading out or switching to English, the Schwaben Verein kept meeting and didn’t experience any overt harassment. “The society subscribed to war loans throughout the war and helped in every deserving war charity brought to its notice,” wrote the Ann Arbor News in 1922. While admitting a little defensively that the group was “still carrying its German name,” the paper insisted that “the organization is essentially American and stands for everything which is American.”

The war and subsequent anti-immigrant fervor, as well as Prohibition, cut into the activities of many German groups, but the Schwaben Verein emerged stronger than ever. Helping German war victims from the Württemberg area gave it an additional reason for existing. And although Prohibition lowered attendance at the park, the club met the challenge by selling the land and using the proceeds to help pay off its Ashley Street building.

Member John Hanselmann bought the park and divided it into house lots. The club continued having picnics at Hanselmann’s Grove on Waters Road off Ann Arbor–Saline Road or at members’ farms, such as Walter Aupperle’s property on Frains Lake Road. (The German Park organization on Pontiac Trail is a different group, although there is some overlap in membership.)

In 1922, just eight years after finishing the Halle, the group was able to celebrate paying off the mortgage. “On the eve of Thanksgiving day a gathering of 100 men stood in a darkened room of the Schwaben hall and in hushed stillness watched the mortgage on the building disappear in flames,” reported the Ann Arbor News. “The flickering light of the flames showed up solemn faces and glimpses of the Star Spangled banner which decorate the room. As the last shred of paper fell and the flame died out lights flooded the room and 100 voices rose in acclamation.”

The Verein paid off its mortgage just in time to be ready for the next wave of immigrants. “They came from the very same villages as the men of the eighties and of former decades,” writes Florer. “A revival of interest in plays, concerts, and other social activities began and has continued ever since.”

One of the 1920s immigrants was Gottlob Schumacher, who until his death in 2001 was the group’s oldest living member. Schumacher first visited the Schwaben Halle three days after his arrival in Ann Arbor in October 1923. Staying at the American House, Schumacher was introduced to a fellow Swabian named Gottlob Gross, who brought him over to the club. In a 1988 interview Schumacher recalled that since it was Sunday the hall was supposed to be closed, so the men went up the back stairs from the alley. They rang a bell, and the barman looked through a sliding window before letting them in. Although it sounds like a scene from a Prohibition-era movie, Schumacher insisted that the bar offered nothing stronger than hard cider--although even that was illegal during Prohibition.

Schumacher officially joined the Schwaben Verein three months later. One of his favorite activities was acting in plays the group wrote and performed in Swabian dialect. Walter Metzger, whose parents emigrated from Swabia, recalls that a huge crowd always attended these plays, put on near Christmas. “They filled up the Schwaben Halle, sitting in folding chairs and the benches around the side,” he says. The programs would consist of two or three short, sitcom-like sketches: “There would be a married couple. They would bicker and make fun of each other,” Metzger explains. “Then others would come in--neighbors, relatives. They were humorous. You had to laugh the entire time.” In between the plays, the audience could buy sandwiches and beer at the bar.

The cast were all amateurs, just members who enjoyed that sort of thing—Schumacher, Anton Vetter, Hans Meier, Martin Rempp. Bill and Fred Wente, who worked at Herz Paint Store, did the sets. Bill Staebler, who owned a beauty shop, did the makeup, and members’ wives sewed the costumes. Metzger was just a boy then, but he was put to work with his older brother Hans, who could drive, delivering advertising placards to outlying towns such as Manchester and Bridgewater that had large German populations. Metzger also served as a curtain puller and once even had a nonspeaking role.

In 1938 the Schwaben Verein had been in existence for fifty years. One hundred and fifty members and guests celebrated the anniversary at a banquet at the city’s biggest hotel, the Allenel (where the Courthouse Square apartments are now). After dinner they reconvened at the hall for a program that included music by the Lyra Männerchor (men’s chorus), followed by dancing and a radio program of Swabian folk tunes and songs--broadcast live via shortwave from Stuttgart especially for the occasion.

The plays stopped during World War II, but the group weathered the war, just as it had survived World War I. It no doubt helped that many of the young men leaving to fight the war were themselves of German ancestry. Although local German Americans were firmly on the Allied side, they didn’t forget their relatives in Germany. “We had our own CARE program, helping individually in areas we knew about,” explains French.

The war triggered one last influx of German immigrants. The Schwaben Verein continued a full schedule of activities, including Kirchweihe (literally a church dedication festival, observed as a harvest festival, with strings of radishes, beets, turnips, and cabbage serving as decorations), a children’s Christmas party, an anniversary dinner, and the Bockbierfest, featuring a special beer traditionally made for Lent. For years a group of women, headed by Karoline Schumacher, who was chef at the Old German when she and her husband owned the restaurant from 1936 to 1946, would make and serve such German specialties as liver sausage, roulades, goulash, spaetzle, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. And of course beer was the drink of choice for most events.

German bands from Toledo or Detroit with names like Langecker’s Wanderers, Tyrolers, Dorimusikanten, or Eric Nybower provided the music for dancing. Sometimes the Schuhplattler, a group affiliated with German Park, would perform traditional German dances. For its centennial in 1988, the Verein imported a band from Germany named Contrast.

People who regularly attended these functions became very close. Art French met his wife, then Kathy Rempp, at a Schwaben event. And Kathy’s parents, Mina and Martin Rempp (who, like his son-in-law, was a long-term president), met at a Schwaben event in Toledo.

“We still call each other our extended family,” says Marianne Rauer. “We are our own psychiatrists.” Fritz Kienzle, the group’s flag bearer, once dropped out for three and a half years but missed it so much he went back. “You’ve got to have that gravy on your potatoes,” he explains.

The Schwaben Verein has changed as the local German community has become more assimilated. Originally members had to be from Swabia, but later the group accepted anyone who spoke German. Today, members just have to have some German connection.

Most in the group now are American born, although there are still fourteen German-born members. “The meetings were mostly in German until about twenty years ago,” says French. “There are less and less who can converse in German, so we have to keep translating in order not to keep them out. But we still open and close the meetings in German.”

Though the Verein is still officially an all-male group, in the 1970s, with no change in the rules, women started coming to the hall during meetings. Wives of members who drove their husbands to the meetings, or who just didn’t want to be left alone at home, came up and waited in the bar area, visiting and playing cards until their husbands finished the meeting and joined them.

After Mack & Co. closed during the Great Depression, the first floor was rented to other tenants, including a bar called Mackinaw Jack’s, which left the facade covered with fake logs. Most recently, Hi-Fi Studio, an electronics repair business, packed the space with old TVs and stereos. Even the second-floor meeting room was rented out when the Verein wasn’t using it. Over the years it’s hosted everything from the local Jewish congregation (in the early 1920s) to sports clubs, sister city events, and weddings and other private parties.

French says the group currently has seventy members, of whom twenty or twenty-five regularly attend bimonthly meetings. The average age is about fifty. “Lots join with their dads,” explains Harriet Holzapfel, whose husband, son, and father-in-law were all members. “There’s an age gap,” says Rauer, “but once they are married and have kids they come back. They want their kids to have the Christmas party and family events.”

But the group’s desire to keep the large hall waned, especially since the rest of the building wasn’t producing the rental income it once had. Art French says he’d been looking for a long time, but “I couldn’t get tenants. Everyone wanted to buy—no one wanted to rent.” So in March 2001 the Schwaben Halle was sold to Bill Kinley of Phoenix Contractors and Ann Arbor architects Dick Mitchell and John Mouat.

The new owners removed the fake log-cabin siding from the front of the building and restored the facade as closely as possible to its original look. Inside they made changes to meet current standards, such as wider, fire-code-compliant stairs and an elevator for handicap access.

Meanwhile, the Schwaben Verein members meet just down the street at Hathaway’s Hideaway. “We’re still active, still accepting new members, we still have the activities. We just don’t have a building,” says French. For big events they rent space at either Links at Whitmore Lake or Fox Hills golf course on North Territorial.

Many in Ann Arbor’s German community were sad to see a building that encompassed so much of their past sold. “It was like the soul of the German community, such a beautiful place,” says Marianne Rauer. But Fritz Kienzle points out that the Schwaben Verein was always more that just a building. “People said when you sell you lose all your heritage,” he says. “But the heritage is in you, in your memories.”

Cinema's First Century

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 2003,
September 2003

Author: Grace Shackman

The rise, fall, and revival of Ann Arbor’s downtown theaters

The first movie shown in Ann Arbor was The Great Train Robbery. Filmed a century ago, in 1903, the twelve-minute adventure didn’t make it to town until the following year. On September 26, 1904, it appeared as the last item on a sold-out seven-part program at the Light Armory at Ashley and West Huron. Handcuff King Fred Gay led a bill that included minstrels, jugglers, and a boy tenor.

Films may have started as an afterthought, but they soon became a draw in their own right. One of the first movies to tell a story, The Great Train Robbery featured a long list of technical firsts, among them the first intercut scenes and the first close-up--an outlaw firing a shot right at the audience. The Ann Arbor Times-News reviewer reported that it required “no great stretch of imagination for the spectator to persuade himself that he was looking at a bit from real life.”

“The Great Train Robbery has been called the picture that launched a thousand nickelodeons,” laughs Art Stephan, president of the Ann Arbor Silent Film Society. Within three years of its showing, three nickelodeons (named for their 5¢ admission charge) popped up in Ann Arbor, along with three new vaudeville theaters whose entertainment included movies.

Photograph of the Whitney Theater

The Whitney, 117-119 North Main, originally a venue for traveling stage shows, in 1917 showed Birth of a Nation as if it were just that. The early movie was touring the United States with a twenty-piece orchestra.

Ann Arbor’s wide audience, encompassing both townspeople and university students and faculty, has supported an abundance of theaters ever since. “Ann Arbor is one of the great movie towns in the country,” says Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater. These days, popular films appear almost exclusively in huge multiplexes on the edge of town. But for most of a century, Ann Arbor supported a wide array of downtown theaters, from the first nickelodeons and vaudeville houses to glorious movie palaces like the Michigan.

The Theatorium, “Ann Arbor’s Pioneer Picture Theater,” opened in November 1906 at 119 East Liberty (now, aptly, the home of Liberty Street Video). It showed three short movies for 5¢, changing the offerings three times a week.

The Theatorium wasn’t alone for long. In December the Casino opened at 339 South Main (now the Real Seafood Company restaurant). It advertised that it would cater to women and children and “give good clean shows which all can patronize.” The Theatorium and the Casino were joined in 1907 by the first campus-area theater, the People’s Popular Family Theater. Soon renamed the Vaudette, it was at 220 South State, where Starbucks is now.

Opening a nickelodeon was cheap--all that was needed was an empty storefront, a projector, and some folding chairs. The entrepreneur would put up a sheet at one end, install a box in the door for selling tickets (giving new meaning to the term “box office”), and get a player piano or phonograph for background music-—and he was in business. Called “the poor man’s show” or “democracy’s theater,” nickelodeons were a craze all over the country, appealing mainly to poorer audiences. The News didn’t make much of the nickelodeons’ openings, although it ran their ads.

Also showing films were two new vaudeville theaters. The Bijou, at 209 East Washington, opened the same month as the Casino, followed by the Star, at 118 East Washington, in August 1907. Although they also charged 5¢ admission and were scarcely bigger than the nickelodeons, both had stages at one end that enabled them to present live shows as well as movies. Both received more notice in the local papers than the nickelodeons had.

Maybe protesting a little too much, the Bijou ad invited audiences to “come and see the cozy theater and enjoy strictly high class moral entertainment.” The Star has gone down in history as the site of a student riot on March 16, 1908.

According to Ann Arbor police lieutenant Mike Logghe’s True Crimes and the History of the Ann Arbor Police Department, the riot started as a student protest against manager Albert Reynolds, who allegedly had tried to win a large bet by getting a U-M football player to throw a game. When protesters failed to get Reynolds to come out (reports differ on whether he exited through the back door or was hiding in the basement), they began throwing bricks stolen from a construction site across the street. The riot lasted all night, in spite of appeals by both law dean Henry Hutchins and U-M president James Angell. Eighteen students were arrested, but charges were later dropped when they agreed to raise money for repairs.

Photograph of the Majestic Theater in 1928

Majestic Theater, 316 Maynard, also started as a stage venue.

A much larger and more impressive early theater was the Majestic, at 316 Maynard (now a city parking structure). Unlike the nickelodeons, the Majestic enjoyed detailed local press coverage of its planning and arrival. The Athens, 117 North Main, the town’s major location for live stage shows, had closed in 1904, leaving a keenly felt gap.

The Majestic was built by lumberyard owner Charles Sauer, who converted an indoor roller skating rink into a huge theater--1,100 seats--complete with stage, dressing rooms, balcony, box seats, ladies’ waiting room, confectionery, and manager’s office. It opened September 19, 1907, with The Girl of the Golden West, a live musical about the 1849 gold rush. The Majestic showed movies from the beginning, but vaudeville acts were its main draw--especially after 1908, when the former Athens Theater, remodeled and reopened as the Whitney, reclaimed its position as the preferred place for prime stage shows.

Of the six early theaters, the Majestic was the only one to last. By 1912 all three nickelodeons were gone--the Theatorium became a photography studio, the Casino a grocery store, and the Vaudette a shoemaker’s shop. All around the country nickelodeons were closing, Art Stephan says, mainly because the early movies weren’t very good: “They were not very exciting--just a novelty.” The small vaudeville theaters lasted a little longer, but by 1915 the Bijou was gone. The Star was renamed the Columbia, then closed for good in 1919.

Despite the nickelodeons’ failure, a few far-thinking producers kept developing and improving movies, making them longer and more sophisticated. In 1913 the Majestic announced it was switching to movies as its lead attraction. Manager Arthur Lane promised audiences “high class feature motion pictures” such as Ben Hur and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In 1914 the Whitney also started occasionally showing movies. Seeking to lure middle-class audiences, it promised “good clean pictures that anyone would be glad to see.”

Then, in a five-year period, four new theaters specifically designed to show movies opened. The Orpheum at 336 South Main was the first, built in 1913 by clothier J. Fred Wuerth. The architect, “Mr. F. Ehley of Detroit,” designed an arched facade reminiscent of Adler and Sullivan’s 1889 Auditorium Building in Chicago (the arch now frames the entrance to Gratzi). Inside, the decor included fancy paneling and box seats. The opening performance featured The Hills of Strife, about feuding mountaineers, plus two other movies and a live show by the Musical DeWitts. It drew such a crowd that people had to be turned away.

The next year, 1914, Selby Moran built the Arcade at 715 North University, at the end of an arcade that ran along the north side of a tailor shop. Just three years later, Moran expanded the theater from twenty-six rows of seats to forty-three and added a balcony and boxes. The projector (or “motion picture machine,” as they called it then) was on the second floor--actually in the tailor shop, outside the theater proper. “We used to go to doubleheaders at the Arcade on Saturdays,” recalls John Eibler. “My mother would drop us off and take a chance when to come back. The time was doubtful when we’d come out--we had to see the whole thing.” He remembers seeing “cowboy and Indian” pictures, particularly Tom Mix features.

The Rae, at 113 West Huron, opened on September 11, 1915. At 385 seats, it was the smallest of the new theaters. Its name was an amalgam of the first initials of its three owners--Russell Dobson, Alan Stanchfield, and Emil Calman. Stanchfield, the on-site manager who eventually bought the others out, visited theaters all over Michigan and Illinois to learn the tricks of the trade. He did almost everything himself--took tickets (he knew the ages of all the kids and could charge accordingly), climbed a ladder to run the projector, and hawked refreshments up and down the aisle between reels. Bob Hall, a regular customer, recalls watching cowboy movies and serials. “Sometimes the policeman on the beat would come in and stand at the back to watch,” Hall says.

Photograph of the Wuerth Theater in 1916

Wuerth Theater, 320 South Main, showed the first talkie in 1929.

In 1918 Fred Wuerth added a second theater, naming it after himself. (He also built one with the same name in Ypsilanti.) Set perpendicular to the Orpheum, the Wuerth was reached from Main Street through a skylighted arcade to the north of the owner’s clothing store. A Hope-Jones organ was placed so it could be heard in both theaters.

One of the most important films ever, Birth of a Nation, bypassed all four of the new theaters in favor of the Whitney. D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic was presented as if it were a live road show, traveling around the country with a twenty-piece orchestra. Admission to the four showings on May 18 and 19, 1917, was $1.50—at a time when most ticket prices were 5¢ or 10¢.

Although seriously flawed by Griffith’s racist portrayal of newly freed slaves, the film was a turning point in movie history, showing audiences how engrossing this new medium could be. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of Birth of a Nation,” says Collins. “Griffith coalesced a film language recognizable today, the technique of telling a story with film.” The following week the Whitney showed Intolerance, which Griffith produced as an answer to criticism of Birth of a Nation.

The days of releasing many prints simultaneously across the nation were still in the future: Birth of a Nation had been shown in bigger cities in 1915 and Intolerance in 1916. But movie exhibition was already becoming more organized. At first, all the early movie theaters were run by their owners. With the exception of the Rae, however, all were eventually leased to the Battle Creek–based Butterfield theater chain.

Gerald Hoag, Butterfield’s manager of the Majestic in the 1920s, faced the challenge of handling the rushes college students made on the theater, usually after a victorious football game. “They’d holler and yell and demand a free movie. They always got in,” recalls Bob Hall, who as a small boy took part in one of these rushes. “I was scared stiff--I was afraid I’d get squashed--but I wanted to see a free movie. My mother didn’t like it. She castigated me when I got home.”

Hoag, a big Wolverine fan, hired football players as ushers. In the days before regular radio sportscasts, Hoag obtained scores from the ticker-tape machine at Huston Brothers’ pool hall on State Street and announced them to his audience. Then he got a better idea: he leased a direct telegraph wire from the press box wherever the U-M was playing and had Fred Belser, a telegraph operator at Western Union, sit on stage and transcribe the messages. Hoag would read the play-by-play to the audience while an assistant moved a toy football across a mocked-up field. At halftime Hoag presented a vaudeville show.

One of Hoag’s claims to fame was discovering Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. In 1922 Waring’s band played at the annual J-Hop at Waterman Gym. Although two more famous bands were also playing, Hoag noticed that most of the dancers drifted over to Waring. Hoag booked him at the Majestic, where he stayed six weeks, playing one-hour sets interspersed with movies. That engagement led to work in Detroit and other big cities, and for the rest of his career Waring credited Hoag with giving him his big break.

Photograph of the Michigan Theater and cars
parked along Liberty St

The Michigan Theater opened in 1928 as a silent movie palace. The next year they switched to talkies.

The acme and the last hurrah of the silent movie era in Ann Arbor was the opening of the Michigan Theater on January 5, 1928. The grandiose “shrine to art” reflected a national trend toward extravagant movie palaces. Starting in the teens with scrumptious theaters modeled loosely on the Paris Opera, designers segued into increasingly fanciful Egyptian, Spanish, Chinese, Mayan, and Babylonian themes. “Movies were considered low-class entertainment. The movie palaces were designed to legitimize movies as middle-class entertainment,” explains the Michigan’s Russ Collins.

The Michigan was built by Angelo Poulos, a Greek immigrant who was co-owner of the Allenel Hotel and an organizer of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Although the Michigan’s style is usually referred to as “Romanesque Revival,” architect Maurice Finkel explained in a News interview that he worked in a mixture of styles--classical, medieval, Romanesque--that he thought would fit with U-M academic buildings and fraternities. (Many Ann Arborites will remember Finkel’s widow, Anya, who managed Jacobson’s hat department for years and was known for her frank advice.)

The Butterfield chain transferred Hoag to the Michigan along with most of the rest of the Majestic staff, from ticket takers to ushers. From then on the Majestic was devoted completely to movies, since the Michigan was a better place for stage shows, and the Arcade was demoted to a second-run theater.

The Michigan opened to a sellout crowd. Entertainment included an overture written for the event and a live show, The Dizzy Blondes Dance Revue. The featured movie, A Hero for a Night, was supplemented by shorts, a comedy, and a newsreel. But the Michigan was out-of-date the day it opened: the first successful talkie, The Jazz Singer, had premiered the year before.

Talking pictures came to Ann Arbor on March 21, 1929, when the Wuerth showed The Ghost Talks. While other local owners hesitated to spend money on sound systems, Fred Wuerth had figured out that after the initial investment, he could save money replacing live vaudeville acts with short one-reel films. Talkies had been around in bigger cities since The Jazz Singer, and Ann Arborites were ready: the waiting crowd lined up down Main Street and around the corner onto Liberty.

Other theaters had to add sound quickly to remain competitive. On June 16, 1929, the Michigan showed its first talkie, Weary River. The Majestic also switched to talkies that year. The Arcade, too, was scheduled for conversion, but burned down before the work could begin. (The Rae also burned the following year; at both theaters, the fire started when highly flammable nitrate film ignited, but the only injuries were minor burns to the projectionists.)

Both the Orpheum and the Whitney closed in 1929 but reopened in the mid-1930s. With no one building new theaters during the Great Depression, the rest of the lineup stayed the same. First-run movies played at either the Michigan or the Majestic, because they were the largest theaters and the ones best located to take advantage of both town and gown patrons. Second-run and B movies played the theaters downtown.

The Michigan and Majestic were the theaters to take dates to on Friday and Saturday nights. Jack Dobson remembered going to movies for 35¢ and then to Drake’s for a malted or a milk shake. Al Gallup started dating a little later; by that time, he recalls, “both the Majestic and the Michigan were forty cents.” But even with the price increase, “for a dollar you could have a date. You’d go to Drake’s after the show for a Coke.” Ted Palmer preferred the Betsy Ross restaurant in Nickels Arcade: “There were no college kids in the Betsy Ross. We’d get a lemon Coke or a cherry Coke--one Coke and two straws.”

Although not as fancy as the Michigan, the Majestic still got important films--including 1939’s Gone with the Wind. “Everyone wanted to see Gone with the Wind,” recalls Bob Steeb. “I went with my wife. We worked at Wahr’s on State Street and took the day off to see it.”

For many people who grew up in Ann Arbor, though, the fondest cinematic memories are of kids’ movies. On Saturday mornings, if they could spare the money and time, they could see full-length movies made for children at the Michigan. Or they could head for the Whitney or the Wuerth, where the movie might not be as good, but there’d also be a serial.

Serials typically consisted of six or seven weekly installments, each twenty or thirty minutes long. Episodes always stopped at a perilous moment--most famously, with the heroine about to be run over by a train. “We could hardly wait for the next Saturday,” recalls Palmer. “We’d replay the movie all the way home, shooting the bad guys.”

During World War II the bad guys were Axis soldiers. Coleman Jewett remembers watching serials such as Don Winslow of the Navy and Spy Smasher. Even the Phantom, Jewett says, added Nazi-hunting plots.

On Saturdays in the late 1940s and early 1950s, “kids would get in for ten cents,” recalls Bob Mayne, a projectionist at the Wuerth. “We’d show ten cartoons, then a serial--Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Buck Rogers--then a feature film like Gene Autry.” Once Mayne projected a Donald Duck cartoon backwards. “The kids loved it,” he remembers, “although my boss was mad.”

The Orpheum’s fare was originally very similar to the Wuerth’s, but it later established a niche playing to the more intellectual crowd with documentaries, revivals of prestigious American films, and foreign films--The Red Shoes is the movie people most often mention having seen at the Orpheum. Coleman Jewett also saw Camille and The Hunchback of Notre Dame there, while Mark Hodesh recalls going with his parents to see travelogues.

A rite of passage among kids was to sneak into the theater. At the Orpheum or Wuerth, those in the know would sometimes sneak into the other theater through a connecting tunnel. Of course any place that backed onto an alley was fair game--the kids exiting would hold the door for those who wanted to come in. Ted Heusel, who ushered at the Michigan when he was a teenager, told his friends to just pretend they were giving him a ticket. At the Majestic, some kids learned how to get in by going up the fire escape.

Once the economy recovered in the early 1940s, Butterfield considered remodeling the Majestic but instead decided to build a new theater. The Majestic closed on March 11, 1942, and the State Theater opened a week later. Not wanting to appear unpatriotic, Butterfield management emphasized that the necessary permits were issued and materials purchased before the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December.

Six buildings along State were razed to make room for the new Art Deco theater. (The architect was C. Howard Crane, who also designed Orchestra Hall and the Fox Theater in Detroit.) The Majestic’s manager and staff all moved over to the new theater. “It was a big deal when it opened,” recalls Gallup. The premiere movie, appropriate for the times, was the Dorothy Lamour–William Holden musical The Fleet’s In, about a sailor with an inflated reputation as a lady-killer.

Photograph of people lined up down the
sidewalk on Liberty Street in front of the Michigan Theater

People lined up to see "It Happens Every Spring", written by Ann Arbor's Shirley Smith.

A highlight of Ann Arbor movie history was the 1949 premiere at the Michigan Theater of It Happens Every Spring, a baseball movie starring Ray Milland and Jean Peters. The film was based on a story written by U-M vice-president emeritus Shirley Smith, and the Ann Arbor showing actually preceded the “world premiere”—that took place in the movie’s location, St. Louis, two weeks later. A searchlight spanned the skies, the U-M Concert Band played in front of the theater, and the street was blocked off while U-M president Alexander Ruthven and Ann Arbor mayor Bill Brown presented Smith with their version of an Oscar.

The rise of television in the 1950s hit the oldest theaters first. At the Whitney, once host to such glamorous stars as Maude Adams, Katharine Cornell, and Anna Pavlova, the top balcony was closed off for safety reasons. “Four four-by-fours were holding up the whole projector. It was pretty heavy--the whole thing would shake,” recalls Bob Mayne, who once managed to sneak a look. The two lower balconies, Mayne adds, became “a necker’s paradise.” Walter Metzger recalls that the kids thought (possibly correctly) that there were bats in the top balcony, and their fears made scary movies at the Whitney even scarier.

“It was rat infested, or at least rumored to be. We told the girls that rats were running around so they’d stay close,” laughs Gallup. In 1952 the Whitney was closed by court order. The building was torn down in 1955.

The Wuerth, also, had clearly seen better days when its run ended. Carol Birch recalls the theater in the 1950s as “creepy. It was run down--people didn’t go there much. It was dark to get to your seat.” In 1957 the Wuerth and the Orpheum both closed.

To cater to the art-movie audience that had patronized the Orpheum, Butterfield built the Campus on South University. “It was a real nice one-show theater,” recalls Mayne. Lois Granberg, ticket taker at the Michigan, became manager, and most of the rest of the staff, including projectionist Mark Mayne (Bob Mayne’s father), transferred from the Orpheum. Doug Edwards, who was a projectionist at the Campus, recalls that although it was less opulent than the Michigan and the State (where he also worked), “it was the newest, most modern, with chrome and pastels and a concession stand. It was the place they’d have gimmick films, like surround sound.” During the height of the 1960s foreign-film craze, crowds lined up along South University to see the latest Fellini or Bergman work.

When a group headed by Ken Robinson and attorney Bill Conlin built the Fifth Forum in 1966, Conlin was also thinking of providing a successor to the Orpheum. “We had a contest in the Ann Arbor News to name the theater,” he recalls. The Fifth Forum’s first big success was Georgy Girl, with Lynn Redgrave. The Fifth Forum kept showing the romantic comedy for more than six months, Conlin says--in contrast to the Butterfield theaters, which were able to book movies only for short periods.

The Fifth Forum was the last commercial movie theater built downtown. The cinematic migration to Ann Arbor’s edges started the following year, when the Fox Village Theater opened on Maple Road. In 1975 the city got its first multiplex, a four-screen United Artists theater at Briarwood. Films at “the one-screen movie theaters changed every week and then were gone,” explains Patrick Murphy, a projectionist who worked in several Ann Arbor theaters at the time. “Showing four for a month was better, economically speaking.” Expanded choices and easier parking soon lured most casual moviegoers to the mall. “We would show movies at the Campus to ten or fifteen people,” recalls Edwards.

Butterfield fought back, dividing the State into a quad in 1977 with two screens downstairs and two more upstairs in what had been a balcony, but the firm was just buying time. In 1979 Butterfield quit programming at the Michigan. The theater-loving community, worried that the beautiful building would be torn down or altered for an incompatible use, mobilized to save it. The mayor at the time, Lou Belcher, personally promised that the city would buy the theater, going to council and the voters for authorization only after the fact. The daring deal paved the way for a 1982 millage that led to its restoration and operation by the nonprofit Michigan Theater Foundation.

The Briarwood multiplex expanded from four theaters to seven in 1983. The following year, Butterfield gave up the ghost, selling its remaining theaters to Kerasotes Corporation. Kerasotes kept the State but sold the Campus. “It was more valuable as real estate,” explains John Briggs, who was local president of the International Alliance of State and Theatrical Employees at the time. The Campus was torn down and replaced with a mini-mall.

Kerasotes tried to make the State profitable by replacing union projectionists with lower-paid workers. New technology could fit a whole movie on a single huge spool of film, rather than on small reels that had to be changed every twenty minutes--so one person could run four or even eight movies at a time. Union members and U-M students picketed, and in 1988 Kerasotes sold out to Hogarth Management, a real estate company owned by bookstore founders Tom and Louis Borders. Kerasotes “suffered some financial loss, but that didn’t run them out of town. The changing times with the cineplex at Briarwood is probably what did it,” says Edwards, who was one of the picketers. “The ‘GKC’ rugs are Kerasotes’s only contribution to the State,” laughs Murphy.

Hogarth leased the main floor of the State to Urban Outfitters but kept the two upstairs screens. “I was involved in the restoration of the Michigan Theater and had a soft spot for movie theaters,” says Roger Hewitt, who ran Hogarth. “I wanted to keep the movie space, and Tom and Louis were supportive.” Under Hewitt’s direction, the State’s original marquee was also restored. Hogarth initially leased the upstairs to the Spurlin family of Aloha Theaters; after the Spurlins left in 1997, the Michigan Theater was hired to do the programming and publicity. Movies that formerly would come to the Michigan for just a few days can now be transferred to the State for a longer run.

The Fifth Forum was not only the last commercial theater built downtown but also the last to close. Conlin’s group sold it to Goodrich Theaters, which renamed it the Ann Arbor Theater and divided it awkwardly between two smaller screens. It showed its last film in 1999 before being remodeled into an office building with an interesting metal facade.

Ironically, the Briarwood multiplex that devastated in-town movies was itself destroyed by the next new development. The whole United Artists chain went bankrupt three years ago under pressure for newer, even bigger movie houses--represented locally by Showcase Cinemas and Quality 16. After standing empty for several years, the Briarwood theaters reopened last year under the management of Madstone, a small chain that mixes first-run films with art movies and classics.

The venues have changed, but Ann Arbor is still a good movie town. Between them, Showcase and Quality 16 offer forty screens of first-run fare. Fox Village is now a bargain-priced fourplex specializing in second-run films. For more exotic productions, we have the Michigan, State, and Madstone. “Very few towns with a population of a hundred thousand have the choices of movies we have,” says Collins.

[Photo caption from book]: Orpheum, 326 South Main, was the first theater in town built specifically as a movie house. “Courtesy Susan Wineberg”

[Photo caption from book]: In the pre-television age, area children enjoyed going to movies on Saturday afternoon at either the Michigan, Wuerth, or Whitney. “Courtesy Bentley Historical Library”

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Otto's Band

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 2001,
October 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Playing “The Victors” in manuscript and sending soldiers off to war, they gave the city its sound track for half a century

In a temporary stage illuminated by gasoline lamps, Otto’s Band gave summer concerts on the County Courthouse lawn in the early decades of the twentieth century. The audience, who in the days before radio and record players had few opportunities to hear music, was very appreciative of all the pieces, but the highlight was always “The Holy City.” Everyone was quiet as bandleader Louis Otto rose and played the sentimental religious solo on his cornet. When Otto finished, he was answered by Ray Haight, playing his trumpet from the Allenel Hotel across Huron Street. “It was the most beautiful thing I ever heard,” the late Ralph Lutz, who played in the band, recalled in a 1974 interview. “I’ll never forget it.”

Otto’s Band, under slightly varying names, entertained townsfolk and commemorated important events for almost fifty years. Henry Otto Sr. started the band in 1875, and his son Louis took over in 1895. The musicians, numbering about twenty, marched in parades, provided music for dances, gave concerts, and sent soldiers off to the Spanish-American War and World War I. Under Louis’s leadership they became a professional band, the first local members of the musicians’ union. Among their many accomplishments is the honor of being the first to play the U-M fight song, “The Victors.”

Photograph of Henry Otto's Band posing in
front of the courthouse

Henry Otto's Band

Music was a vital part of German American culture. Marion Otto McCallum, niece of Louis Otto and daughter of band member Henry Otto Jr., recalls that “a good share of the population” came out to see the band whenever it played. “There were other little bands, but Otto’s was the band as far as I can see,” McCallum explains. “It was a good part of our living at that young age.”

According to family stories, Henry Otto Sr. left Germany because he was tired of fighting for the king. He first came to North America during the Civil War era and lived in New Hamburg, Ontario, near Stratford. In 1870 Henry moved to Ann Arbor with his brothers, Valentine and Jonas. He returned to Canada in 1872 but came back here for good in 1875 after receiving an offer to join Jacob Gwinner’s band.

Henry and his wife Margaret--also a German immigrant who’d initially settled in Canada--built a house at 558 South Fifth Avenue. Today, Fingerle Lumber takes up most of the neighborhood, but at the time it was still pasture and swamp. When he wasn’t playing music, Henry Otto was a blacksmith who specialized in shoeing horses. He carried on his trade at 215 South Ashley, now site of the Schwaben Halle, with his sons Jonas and George.

Otto played many different instruments, but the violin was his favorite. He taught all of his six children to play instruments and formed his four sons into a youth marching band. After Jacob Gwinner died, Otto formed his own group with son Jonas, then fifteen, as one of the players. He led the “Ann Arbor City Band” for twenty years before passing the baton to another son, Louis. Henry Sr., who by then was fifty-five years old, was probably quite willing to give up marching, and Jonas, thirty-five, was also willing to leave it to younger members of the family. Louis, who was just sixteen years old when he took over, played the cornet and trombone; another brother, Henry Otto Jr., played the tuba in the new group.

When Louis Otto took over, the band was a small group that played primarily for fun. Under his leadership it grew into a highly skilled, professional organization.

The younger Otto initially named his group “The Washtenaw Times Band,” presumably after a newspaper sponsor. In 1901 he found a long-term sponsor--the Masonic lodge to which most of the players belonged--and renamed the group “Otto’s Knights Templar Band.”

Both Louis and Henry Jr. lived near their father and could easily consult him on music matters. Louis lived at 402 Benjamin Street; he had a day job as a painter at the Walker carriage factory on Liberty. Henry Jr. lived at 818 Brown and worked at Sauer Lumber Company, just west of his parents’ house on Fifth, doing finish carpentry, such as trim work on doors. The Sauers must have been understanding bosses: McCallum remembers that her dad had no trouble getting off work to play engagements.

McCallum’s family had one of the first telephones in the neighborhood, because her dad had to know about practice sessions and performance dates. “He practiced a couple nights a week,” she recalls. “He’d come home from work and get dressed for practice and walk into town.” If a concert was scheduled, “he’d leave the house with perfectly pressed pants [and] shined shoes. He’d be dusty or snowy when he returned, but when he left, he was perfect.” In rain or freezing cold, Otto’s musicians always met their commitments. “All that walking, carrying all those heavy instruments--how did they ever get around without collapsing in the heat or cold?” she wonders today.

After a performance, band members sometimes gathered in Henry Jr.’s living room to continue playing. “My brother Nelson and I would sit on the staircase,” McCallum recalls. “We didn’t dare bother them. It was very serious, professional playing.”

Townsfolk celebrated most holidays with the help of Otto’s Band. On Memorial Day the band paraded to and from Forest Hill Cemetery to honor soldiers of past wars. Louis Otto played taps, which another musician echoed from farther away. A 1914 picture shows the band returning from the cemetery, marching down North University toward State, with a boy riding a bike alongside. The rider is Henry Jr.’s son Jonas--who later got in trouble with his dad for riding so close.

Photograph of Louis Otto's Band, marching
on Memorial Day

Louis Otto’s band marching down North University, returning from playing at a Forest Hills Memorial Day program. Note Jonas Otto, son of one of the band members, riding near the band. He was later reprimanded.

On the Fourth of July the band played at Island Park. It was credited with making the island a popular picnic spot. Once, when band member Julius Weinberg was preparing to set off fireworks, a prankster beat him to it, causing much consternation among the band members, some of whom had to hide behind trees to escape injury. On Labor Day they marched from downtown to the Schwaben Park at Madison and Fifth for the annual picnic of labor union members. In between were the summer courthouse municipal concerts, which sometimes included group singing led by the band. After automobiles became popular, some attendees listened from cars parked around the courthouse and added to the applause by honking their horns.

During the winter the band played indoors at weddings and at the Masons’ ball, held yearly at the armory. A smaller group, about half the band, also played for the skaters at Fred Weinberg’s ice rink at Fifth and Hill (Weinberg was married to Henry Otto Sr.’s daughter Mary; Julius was his son). The players sat in a little hut in the middle of the ice, closing the windows periodically so they could get warm.

Otto’s band was composed of townsfolk, and all were Germans or of German ancestry. At that time, town and gown generally kept to themselves--but they would come together to make music. Thanks to such a collaboration in 1898, Otto’s Band was the first to play “The Victors,” composed by U-M music major Louis Elbel.

Elbel and Louis Otto were friends. “I remember my father telling of Louis Elbel writing ‘The Victors’ and coming down to our [house] and playing it for father’s comments,” Louis’s son Ferdinand recalled in a written reminiscence. Working from Elbel’s manuscript, Otto’s Band played “The Victors” at the very next U-M football game, and the song became part of the band’s concert repertoire.

Otto’s Band played frequently at early U-M football games, either on its own or supplementing the U-M band when there were not enough student players. “In nineteen two, three, four, townspeople made up about a quarter of the band,” says Bob MacGregor, who has done extensive research on the history of the U-M band. In 1905 Otto’s Band and the U-M band both went to Chicago for a game. A section of the stands collapsed, and the musicians ended up helping with first aid more than playing music.

In 1914 Ann Arbor musicians organized a branch of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 625. Otto’s became the first union band in the city, and Louis Otto was elected the union’s first president.
Three years later the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. If the German American band members felt any misgivings, they gave no public sign. Otto’s Band played a prominent role in Ann Arbor’s public commemorations of the war. On August 15, 1917, the Ann Arbor News reported that an estimated 10,000 people gathered to say good-bye to a group of recruits leaving for training at Camp Grayling. “Hundreds walked to the station alongside the marching troops,” the paper wrote, “headed by Otto’s band, and keeping step to martial music.”

When the war ended in 1918, Otto’s Band was again out in full force. After parading through Ann Arbor, the band was asked to come to Chelsea to help the village celebrate.

Otto’s Band is believed to have played for the last time on June 30, 1922, at the laying of the cornerstone for the Masonic Temple on Fourth Avenue (replaced in the late 1970s by the federal building parking lot). Though only in his forties, Louis Otto died two years later, in 1924.

No recording was ever made of Otto’s Band, but people who played in or heard the band remembered it and talked of it the rest of their lives. Robert Steeb recalls how his father-in-law, band member Ernest Bethke, used to chuckle about a mistake he once made when marching south on Main. The band turned smartly onto Packard--all except for Bethke, who missed the turn and, to his chagrin, found himself marching alone down Main Street.

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