(For more local history, buy VANISHING ANN ARBOR at your local bookstore or online!)
Old time Ann Arborites always entertained themselves. Theater troupes visited, orators came to speak, circuses traveled to us–we even had a debating society! But true society entered the town when Whitney’s Opera House opened in 1908.
Previously, Hill’s Opera House operated at the southwest corner of Main and Ann. It ran with success until Hill, experiencing some financial problems, sold the building to a succession of absentee landlords.
City Alderman Herman Pipp decided to revive the building and sought financial backing from Bert Whitney, who owned theaters in Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto. Whitney bought the building in 1906 and it was subsequently renovated by the Koch Brothers (I sincerely hope/presume that they are no relation to those other Koch Brothers we hear so much about these days).
The theater seated 1,500 in the main floor, balcony, high gallery, and private suites. The high gallery featured hard bench seats–the “cheap seats”–which could not be reserved. To get them, patrons had to line up on Ann Street the day of the performance, climb a fire escape, and buy tickets from a special second floor window.
The lobby’s panels were a deep red, the floor made of “mild” color tiles, all backed by dark oak finishes. The overall color scheme was described by the Argus as “gold, sky blue, light green, and pale yellow.” The carpet in the theater was also a dark red, as were the curtains and seats. The lighting sounds phenomenal–three French chandeliers lit up the lobby and almost 600 candle power lamps lit the stage. That stage boasted nine different sets, including a fancy parlor, a cottage, a prison, a garden, and streetscapes. This was unheard of for a “small town” theater at the time.
The opulence and reputation of the Whitney put it on the “A list” booking circuit, welcoming the biggest stars of the day (think: Barrymores, Lillian Russell). The Whitney also presented UM productions, some of which went on to play in New York and Chicago.
The theater closed during the Depression and was reopened as a movie house in 1934. It was torn down in 1955.