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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.”
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.
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.
The Michigan Union Opera’s Cross-Gender Fun
In 1949 U-M junior Jimmie Lobaugh landed a starring role in the Michigan Union Opera. He dressed up as a pregnant woman and belted out a showstopper entitled “I Want a Pickle.”
The show was Froggy Bottom, a parody of the efforts of World War II veterans and their families to cope with the red tape of the GI Bill. “It was dreadful, horrible,” Lobaugh laughs, “but we had a heck of a lot of fun.”
A U-M tradition from 1908 to 1955, the Michigan Union Opera was created to raise funds for the Michigan Union building. Since the Michigan Student Union was then an all-male club, men made up the entire cast, playing both male and female roles.
The cross-dressing was always a source of much hilarity, especially among the friends of the “actresses.” But some spectators were taken in. “After the shows, guys would wait outside to get dates with the ‘girls,’” recalls Jim Graf, who as a child saw many of the pre–World War II shows, because his dad built the scenery. “It was that good, their costumes and makeup.”
There couldn’t have been any question, however, about the gender of the burly football players who were recruited to form chorus lines in female costumes relevant to the plot. Depending on the year, they might appear as geishas, Egyptian temple dancers, or can-can girls.
The MUO’s first show, 1908’s Michigenda, set the tone for ensuing productions. The plot concerned efforts to keep a rich donor, Mr. Moneyfeller, from finding out that his nephew wasn’t actually on the U-M faculty. The “real” professors—students impersonating well-known faculty members of the time—were hidden away in a tunnel, which eventually exploded from all the hot air. Meanwhile, the student characters were transported to the magic land of the title, a place where there were no professors and where Granger’s, a then-popular dance hall on Huron Street, was open six nights a week.
Michigenda opened at the Whitney Theater downtown, a location chosen to encourage attendance by local residents as well as academics. On opening night the enthusiastic audience stood in the aisles and refused to leave until the cast had taken five curtain calls. All five performances were sold out, with special trains of U-M alumni coming in from Detroit.
The next year’s show, Culture, was just as big a hit. The plot revolved around a ten-foot slide rule that could solve any problem. After the show, the slide rule was acquired by the engineering department, where for years afterward it was a fixture of the annual Engineers’ Ball.
The Michigan Union, the first such organization in the country, was formed in 1904. In 1907 the group purchased the State Street home of law pro¬fessor Thomas Cooley. The rest of the site of the present Union was purchased with the proceeds of the first two Michigan Union Operas.
The custom of using football players in the chorus originated with the fourth production, The Awakened Ramses. Two weeks before the show opened, the dean of students announced new eligibility rules that prevented half the cast from taking part. The production could have been doomed but for the timely intervention of football coach Fielding Yost, who convinced his players to fill in.
The players had recently concluded their season and showed up with “bruised shoulders, bandaged knees, and clumsy feet,” recalled Earl Moore, the show’s student conductor (later the U-M music school dean). But “there was no question of the dedication and zeal that these new ‘actors and dancers’ put forth in Whitney Theater to match the same qualities in their performances on Ferry Field.” The athletes caused such a sensation that from then on, no MUO performance was considered complete unless it included a chorus of football players dressed as women.
Planning for the MUO productions started with a campus wide competition for scripts. The director usually reshaped the material, and often cast members had ideas to make it funnier, so it would turn out to be a group effort.
The MUO became so popular that many more students tried out than there were roles available. The men who were cast came from all over the university. “You crossed paths with people you wouldn’t otherwise know—premed, athletes,” recalls Jack Felton, who appeared in several 1950s productions and wrote some of the music for one. “I wanted to do it for an extracurricular activity, to do something besides grind away at books,” recalls Jerry Gray, who danced in the chorus for 1953’s Up ’n’ Atom wearing a woman’s dancing outfit complete with a stuffed brassiere. Although Gray claims he wasn’t much of a social dancer, he had no trouble learning the steps, which he often practiced going home through the Law Quad.
The MUO went on the road for the first time in 1914, when both the Detroit and Chicago alumni associations offered to sponsor shows. That year’s opera, A Model Daughter, took place in Paris and so seemed well suited for export. There had been talk of touring before; questions about whether out-of-town audiences would catch the U-M humor, and if so whether it would paint an unflattering picture of the campus, had made the producers hesitate. But the first road trip was such a success that it became a yearly tradition.
Construction on the present Union building started in 1916, and subsequent operas helped pay off the bonds that financed it. But the tradition nearly faltered when the United States entered World War I the following year. By 1918 so many men were off fighting that Union manager Homer Heath asked, “Which shall it be: an opera with Michigan girls or no opera?” That was the only year in which women appeared in the MUO.
A turning point came with the arrival of Broadway director E. Mortimer Shuter in 1919. Unable to get into the army during World War I, Shuter was doing his bit for the war effort by directing USO shows when MUO general chairman F. C. Bell met him in Philadelphia and convinced him to come to Ann Arbor for a year.
The 1919 show, Come On, Dad, featured elaborate scenery, fancy costumes, and new dance styles. (Shuter’s good friend Roy Hoyer, a Broadway singer and dancer, helped coach the students.) Earl Moore praised Shuter’s “ability to create almost professional results with average amateur materials.” The show was such a triumph both in town and on the road that Shuter was persuaded to stay instead of returning to Broadway.
In 1921 Shuter produced Top o’ th’ Mornin’, with pre-law major Thomas Dewey play¬ing the male lead. As Patrick O’Dare, an evil pretender to the Irish throne, the future New York governor and Republican presidential candidate stopped the show with a number called “A Paradise of Micks.” Reviewers raved about the “velvety texture” of Dewey’s baritone voice, and he toured eight cities when the show went on the road. But according to Dewey’s biographer, Richard Norton Smith, “usually on these train trips, he could be found alone, often in the last car, uncomfortable with the camaraderie and alcohol” shared by the rest of the cast.
Shuter reached his peak with 1923’s Cotton Stockings (Never Made a Man Look Twice). Lionel Ames, described by a reviewer as “a clever actor and mimic,” played the female lead so successfully that he later went on to a vaudeville career as a female impersonator. That year the MUO invaded Ivy League territory, playing in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, and receiving rave reviews wherever it went. Several female characters “looked astonishingly real as pretty fixtures of feminine grace,” reported the Washington Times. “Others, chorines notably, were such virile masculines that all fashion’s fripperies and layers of cosmetics couldn’t disguise razored chins or stalwart underpinning.” The cast met President Coolidge in Washington and went on to New York, where they set the record at the Metropolitan Opera for the highest box office of an amateur production.
By then there were complaints that the MUO was straying too far from its roots, so Shuter chose Tickled to Death for the next production, with a plot that revolved around U-M archaeologists in China. The set contained a temple reputed to be a replica of an actual Chinese one, but the characterizations were evidently less authentic—a Chinese graduate student wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily complaining that the production was “a gross misrepresentation of Chinese.”
Although the shows originally made a lot of money, the productions were always financially risky because of the high costs of sets, rented costumes, and travel. On New Year’s Eve 1929, shortly after the stock market crash, the MUO suffered a major loss, playing to an empty theater in New York during a blizzard. The next year the opera suspended production.
In the mid-1930s the MUO was revived in a lower-budget form, with students doing more of the work. The plot of the 1934 show, With Banners Flying, had athletic director Fielding Yost taking over as university president, and featured scenes in the Michigan Daily, the Arb, student boardinghouses, and the Union. It was followed by Give Us Rhythm in 1935. But neither show was a big financial success, so the operas were suspended again.
The next revival, in 1939, went in the opposite direction, returning to the days of full-scale productions. Plans even called for Shuter to direct, but he died that November. His death delayed the premiere of Four out of Five (based on the gibe that four out of five girls were pretty, and the fifth went to the U-M) until February 1940. Football players, including Forest Evashevski and Bob Westfall, again formed a chorus, while Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon played a lead: as Jimmie Roosevelt, the president’s son, he helped a freshman become a Big Man on Campus by fixing him up with movie star Hedy La Tour. The MUO returned to its usual December dates later that year with Take a Number. It featured a date lottery, modeled on the draft lottery, which set up boy-girl meetings in the Arb. The last show in this series, Full House, opened four days after Pearl Harbor and was hardly noticed.
The MUO resumed in 1949 with Froggy Bottom (a takeoff on Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C.), which dealt with the problems of veterans and their families on campus. “Congress didn’t understand academic requirements, universities couldn’t understand the red tape to make them work, and the GIs were caught in the confusion,” Jack Felton recalls.
Some of the lyrics for Froggy Bottom were actually written by a woman student, Ann Husselman (now Rusanoff). Edward Chudacoff, an MUO composer, had come up with a tune but had no words for it; Husselman suggested some, and he asked her to write more, which she did. Although she never came near the all-male set, one of the songs she wrote, “Till the Dawn,” was picked up by Fred Waring and played on his radio show.
Jimmie Lobaugh, the lead in Froggy Bottom, helped publicize the show by co-hosting a reception at the Women’s League with the “male” star of the Junior Girls’ Play. He recalls getting into wig, makeup, black dress, black hat, and black high heels, and riding from the Union to the League in a horse-drawn carriage. His counterpart was a short woman dressed as a farmer, wearing a hat with a big brim. The two stayed in character through the reception. When it was over Lobaugh went back downstairs, but to his dismay the horse and carriage were gone. His costume didn’t include a purse, so he had no money to call a cab. He describes the walk back in high heels as “no treat.”
Lobaugh went on to play leading-woman parts for the next four years, alternating with roles in productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of which he was a founder. He played a Mae West character in the 1951 Go West, Madam and a former vaudeville star the next year in Never Too Late. “Gosh, I was beautiful,” he laughs.
Four years before male students began the Michigan Union Opera, female students were putting on the Junior Girls’ Play, with women cross-dressing to play men’s roles. For the first show, in 1904, dean of women Myra Jordan lent her husband’s clothes to the “male” characters.
Like the MUO, the JGP was written, composed, and directed by students. The story lines also were similar—takeoffs on campus events, satires of classic books, or fun in exotic locales. After the men produced their first show, Michigenda, the women responded with a parody called Michiguse. One of the male leads in the 1914 production (above) was played by future dean of women Alice Lloyd—better remembered today for giving her name to a postwar dormitory.
Originally most of the performances were open to women only. But in the 1920s the JGP took a page from the men’s book and opened the play to the general public as fund-raisers for the Michigan League building. After the building was completed in 1930, the JGP moved into its new Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.
The JGP not only predated the MUO, it outlived it as well—the last JGP show was in 1962.
Lobaugh’s parents would come by train from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to attend the opening nights, sitting in the orchestra next to such dignitaries as then-governor G. Mennen Williams. Lobaugh once posed for a photo sitting on the governor’s lap. After graduation Lobaugh was asked to come to Broadway as a female impersonator, but he didn’t want to spend his life playing women, opting instead for a career as a high school music and drama teacher. Even there, though, he found his MUO experience valuable: “I could direct both males and females,” he says. “I could help the girls walk, talk, act, and behave in style.”
The postwar MUO stuck to the original formula but with up-to-date subjects such as the atomic bomb (Up ’n’ Atom), labor unions (Lace It Up, set in a lingerie factory), and radio giveaway shows (Never Too Late). Football players continued to form chorus lines in costumes appropriate for each play—in Go West, Madam they were can-can girls.
The postwar plays also toured, traveling by bus around Michigan and to nearby states. If not quite as glamorous as playing Manhattan, the experience was still memorable. “We had so much fun, it’s a wonder we had any voice left,” recalls Felton. Arriving and playing at important theaters was always awe inspiring. Lobaugh remembers performing in a theater in Buffalo where Mae West had appeared the week before.
At the parties after the out-of-town performances, alumni were often more interested in meeting the football players than the stars in the cast. Robert Segar, who played a male cheerleader in 1954’s Hail to Victor, recalls football players “taking an empty wine bottle to show the plays. The center would put it between his legs and toss it a few feet to the quarterback. The alumni loved it.”
In the 1950s the cross-dressing was still considered risqué by some. From the first there had been accusations of vulgarity, partly due to suggestive ad-libbing by cast members. “The humor was slightly naughty,” admits Jack Felton. And of course, the gay implications were also there. Lobaugh recalls that one of his leading men would bring a girlfriend to rehearsals. “He told me, ‘I don’t want anyone to get the idea you and I are a pair.’ I was so naive I hadn’t thought of it.”
In 1956, the year the Union finally opened to women (before that they could come in only through a side door and, with a few exceptions, had to be accompanied by a male), MUO was absorbed into MUSKET—“Michigan Union Show and Ko-eds Too”—ending almost half a century of same-sex casting.
But even though it ended almost half a century ago, the MUO is not forgotten. Besides raising money for the Union building, the shows created a treasury of U-M songs, the tours were great publicity for the university, and the productions provided a start for many show business careers. Among the long list of notables coming out of the MUO are Billy Mills, who was the bandleader for the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show; Jay Gorney (Gornetzky), who wrote the music of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; and Valentine Davies, who wrote the story for the movie Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street.
At the Michigan Union centennial in January 2004, the Union acknowledged its debt by making the Michigan Union Opera the centerpiece of the celebration. The Union invited MUO alumni back, had present music students sing MUO songs, and rechristened a room the Union Opera Lounge. Located on the first floor across from the Anderson Room, the lounge is a treasury of MUO pictures and memorabilia.