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Athens Theatre Opens New Era

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Athens Theatre Opens New Era

(Ed. Note—This Is the second of two stories on the history of theatrical activity In Ann Arbor. The first article appeared in yesterday’s Dally.)


When the Athens Opera House, the city’s first permanent theatre building opened in 1871, a new era in theatrical activity was begun in Ann Arbor.

An amateur performance of "the Grand Military Allegory of the Spy of Shiloh” initiated the house, and the papers reported that it was "a grand success.” Those who saw it "lived over the excitements of the war...”

FROM THAT TIME on, until converted into the present Whitney in 1908, the Athens was the chief amusement center of the city. University students were not to be put off from their own dramatic ventures, however, even though the theatre, in general, was frowned upon in those prim Victorian times. In 1879, students and faculty witnessed a performance, in a gaslighted room in University Hall, of Terence’s “The Adelphi”—in Latin.

Shakespeare was approved of on campus, and the great Lawrence Barrett was hooked for several University "recitals.” Following his appearance as “Hamlet,” in 1879, students admiringly formed a "Barrett Club,” and proceeded to put on a farce called "Dollars and Cents.” This went over much better than Shakespeare.

Through the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Athens Opera House dwindled in popularity. Perhaps it was the growing number of entertainments offered on campus, or a lack of good shows, but the enthusiasm which had prompted its building in the first place was dying out.

In 1906, the property was purchased by B. C. Whitney, who decided to rebuild the whole structure. He lowered the auditorium to the first floor by tearing out part of the second story floor, added two more stories to the building, and made it into the biggest and best appointed theatre in the state.

It opened on the night, of Jan. 18, 1908 with the Chicago Whitney Opera House Company playing "Knight of a Day.” Box seats went for $25 that night, and it was a local equivalent of a Met opening.

ABOUT THIS TIME, the Majestic Roller Skating Rink was declared unsafe, and was rebuilt into a theatre with vaudeville and "2000 feet of Majestic films.”

In October, 1915, a vaudeville show called “The Girl in the Moon" caused a small riot. The act appeared in a blacked-out theatre, and featured a girl sitting in a luminous crescent moon. While she sang, the moon floated out over the audience and up into the gallery.

The students wanted to know how it was done, naturally enough, so they came equipped with a flashlight. The manager had prepared for this, instructing the ushers to throw out anybody who attempted to light anything. When he pointed to the offending students, however, they rushed him as a body, took him outside, and rolled him in a snowbank. The manager didn’t like this much, and in the resulting melee, two sophomores were hauled off to jail.

The Marx Brothers, the explorer Martin Johnson, and Harry Jolson were some of the famous names at the Majestic. Jolson, like his more famous brother, was a singer, and in his act sang all six parts of the sextet from “Lucia.”

ONE SMALL vaudeville theatre, the Star, suffered a sad fate at the hands of some students in 1914. It was late one Saturday afternoon after a victorious football game, and the audience was more rowdy than usual. The manager got up on the stage and shouted for order. This touched off the students, who proceeded to tear up the theatre. When they were done, the place was in shambles. President Angell had to call a mass meeting to reprimand the mob the next day, and although money was collected to rebuild the Star, it was never very popular after that.

. The Whitney boasted a huge stage, and the size of some of the productions staged substantiates their claim. When “Ben Hur” was put on there, a cast of two hundred people and eight1 horses crammed themselves on the stage at one time.

Although the Whitney has been converted to showing movies for the last seventeen years, the old dressing rooms and stage equipment are still back of the screen. On a wall can be seen the scrawled names of Jane Cowl, Billie Burke, and Ed Wynn—all of whom appeared there many years ago. Robert Montgomery, Wallace Beery, and Alfred Lunt all played the Whitney in bit parts between 1911 and 1915.

Now that movies have pretty well taken over as popular entertainment, true theatrical activity has almost ceased in the city itself. The Arts Theatre Club is the only group to yet return to the tradition—a lengthy and illustrious one.