Bringing the big world to the small town
by Grace Shackman
On November 2, 1869, the famed Hutchinson Family Singers appeared at Dexter's Costello Hall. Known for their four-part harmonies and social activism, the Hutchinsons presented comic, dramatic, and sentimental entertainment, and also promoted controversial issues such as temperance and women's rights.
Two years earlier, John Costello had converted the third floor of his general merchandise store into a 300-person hall. It hosted a wide range of events--a lecture on Indians by Captain C. Lewis (who claimed to be General George Custer's scout and interpreter), a demonstration of velocipede riding by a Detroit man, a performance by the Bohemian Glass Blowers.
Besides the out-of-town entertainment, the hall also provided a venue for local musical and theater productions, military and Masonic balls, and other community events. Musicians sometimes played to crowds on Main Street from an iron balcony.
The balcony was eventually removed as unsafe, and by the 1880s the hall itself was closed to the public because, with only one exit, it was deemed a fire trap. (Today it's the storage space above the Dexter Bakery and Hackney Ace Hardware.) But by then, similar halls had opened in Chelsea and Saline, and Dexter got a larger place for touring shows, concerts, and local events.
Long before the mass media, these were the towns' centers of entertainment and community life and the forerunners of twentieth-century movie theaters, places where the wider world came to the small towns of western Washtenaw County.
Grandiosely, the nineteenth-century showcases were usually called "opera houses"--though they rarely if ever hosted actual operas. The names conveyed a sense of elegance that allowed townsfolk to feel like cultured inhabitants of bigger cities.
In 1883 Sylvan Township built a new township hall in Chelsea. Not a modest wooden structure in the center of the township, as most such halls were, it was designed as a theater. Still in use today as the Potting Shed at 112 W. Middle, the hall had a stage at the north end with dressing rooms underneath. A
steeply pitched balcony overlooked the main floor, which slanted toward the stage. Township functions, mostly those of the treasurer, were relegated to a small office in the front of the hall. Meetings and balloting spread into the rest of the building. For more than a century it was used also for performances and community events. The hall officially opened with a masquerade party, with music by Chelsea's Cornet Band.
In Dexter, Costello Hall's function as the town's stage was taken over in 1886 by the Dexter Opera House, a modest wooden building converted from a roller-skating rink. After running the rink for two years, tailor Adam Deckert and dentist Samuel Jenny had found it didn't earn them much profit, even with events like races, performances by a skating bear, and necktie parties--where young women made matching aprons and ties, and young men would randomly select a tie and be paired to skate with the matching woman.
To convert the rink into a performance venue, the businessmen built a stage with a painted backdrop and a balcony. They brought in an organ and set up chairs that could seat 600 people. The grand opening program included Warren Brier's play A Soldier of Fortune, a harpist, a comedian, and a banjo player.
To make the place even more versatile, the owners bought a canvas to cover the floor for dances. At the first dance there, the Chatauquamon Band of Ann Arbor played, and the Ladies Library Association furnished supper.
In 1887, Saline opened its own opera house on the Wallace Block, built by former stagecoach driver Daniel Wallace to replace wooden buildings destroyed by fire in 1881. His two-story brick Wallace Building at 101-107 South Ann Arbor Street housed stores and the fire department on the first floor. City offices and the police department occupied part of the second floor, though the opera house took up most of the space.
The late nineteenth century was a heyday for traveling entertainers. Arriving by train, visiting performers would stay at the best local hotel--the Chelsea House Hotel, Dexter's Stebbins House, or Saline's Harmon House, all conveniently close by. Their shows ranged from high-toned music and plays to circus-type acts featuring trained animals, jugglers, and contortionists. Road companies presenting Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin came through regularly, as did the Jubilee Singers, who introduced African American spirituals to the North by touring to raise money for Nashville's Fisk University, dedicated to educating freed slaves.
Curtains, covered with advertisements, also rose for local talent--singers, bands, and amateur thespians. Well past the turn of the twentieth century, the opera houses were the only places big enough to hold large gatherings (schools weren't built with auditoriums and gymnasiums then, and most churches didn't yet have halls). Square dances and other dances featuring local musicians were frequently held, as were fund-raisers for various causes--bake sales, bazaars, craft sales, raffles. In Dexter the villagers celebrated George Washington's birthday by holding suppers with guests dressed in colonial costumes.
All three halls hosted many sporting events, though they often had to be adapted to the space constraints. In a 1988 interview in the Saline Reporter, Saline's Hazel Stimpson recalled watching "boys' and girls' basketball games played on the wooden floor, dribbling the ball around the wood-burning stove." The Dexter hall reverted to roller skating occasionally, as did Saline's, where owners of a bakery downstairs complained that the skating stirred up dust that would leak through the ceiling. In the 1930s the Sylvan Township Hall hosted boxing matches.
School gyms and church halls took over many of the functions of the old opera houses as the twentieth century matured. The last event held in the Dexter Opera House was the 1926 high school graduation. It was torn down in 1930; its site is now the parking lot next to the Dairy Queen.
The other halls had longer lives. For years in Chelsea, Memorial Day programs at Sylvan Township Hall were followed by a parade to the cemetery. A myriad of other community events continued, but many died out or moved to other venues. The township moved to a new hall in 1999, and the building changed to commercial use.
After World War II, Saline's hall became the headquarters for Meredith Bixby's puppet shows, which toured the country entertaining elementary school children with classic stories. Bixby started each season with a premier of his latest work, inviting all the children of Saline to the opera house. The shows stopped in 1980, and the building has been empty ever since. Bixby died in 2002; his puppets are now on display at the Saline Chamber of Commerce.
It was not until the 1990s that the legacy of local stages was revived, with Chelsea's Jeff Daniels birthing the popular Purple Rose Theatre, making Chelsea a regional destination for playgoers. Last year, the new Encore Theatre opened in a commercial building in Dexter and began staging musicals.
In the decades between the heyday of the old opera houses and the recent revival of live theaters, a different kind of popular entertainment held townsfolk in thrall and helped bridge the gap to the wider world.
At first, movies were shown in the opera houses themselves.
The first in the area was probably exhibited in 1897, when Thomas Edison's life-size moving picture was shown at the Dexter Opera House by a company that carried its own portable electric generator. The show also featured a concert and recitations.
In 1909 Harley Stanton opened a nickelodeon in Dexter in a room above the H. G. Higgins store at 8110 Ann Arbor Street (now Premier Kitchen Studio). Nickelodeons--so called because admission was five cents--were popular nationwide, showing short movies, usually westerns or slapstick comedies, accompanied by live musicians or narrators. In 1945 Flora Smith, a Dexter historian, wrote a description of Stanton's place: "He set up a gallery at the front end where the operator and reader held forth. Very often the reader had no time to go over the manuscript before the show and mispronunciations and other funny happenings were a result. Harley was the chief operator and Wirt Bostwick chief reader. They stood side by side and endeavored to assist one another, but sometimes this created more laughs than pictures." A pianist attempted to tailor music to the rapidly moving scenes.
After the opera houses were wired for electricity in the early twentieth century, movies began to be a more common part of the entertainment, usually presented by touring companies as part of their acts. In Dexter, the Hunter Stock Company presented a motion picture along with a minstrel show. In Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline, the familiar vaudeville acts continued to appear, entertaining during breaks while the film exhibitors changed reels on their single-reel projectors. Henry Steinbach purchased the Dexter Opera House in 1920, installed a projector and screen, and showed a six-reel western entitled Hell Bent. Two years later he screened a movie about Jackson Prison, followed by a lecture on prison life and a vaudeville performance by some of the inmates.
In the summer Dexter residents could watch silent movies in Monument Park at no cost, sponsored by local merchants as a draw to get people to come into town. Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport, who lived across the street from the park with her family, recalls watching movies as a child while sitting astride a cannon. Later, in the 1940s, local businessmen revived the tradition, showing movies at a ball field on Second Street (now a car wash). But the noise of passing trains interfered, and the exhibitors moved downtown, showing films on the back of what had once been Costello Hall to an audience sitting on blankets on a grassy field.
In Chelsea the Chicago Theater opened in 1909 to present both movies and live shows. Later renamed the Princess, it was on the street level of what is now the Merkel Building, 205-207 South Main.
Movies didn't have a home of their own in Saline until 1920, when the Liberty Theater opened. Saline historian Bob Lane wrote "for several years Zimmerman [the owner] was successful but around the start of 1929 the business began to fail and he began operating at a loss. He closed the theater May 17, 1930, and its loss was keenly felt."
Theaters were slow to convert to talkies, which debuted in 1927 with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer.
Eventually all three towns got their own modern movie theaters. Old schedules show that they changed offerings three times a week. All showings included a newsreel and cartoon, and sometimes there was also a sports reel.
In 1938, the Saline Theatre opened in a building at 111 W. Michigan, now Benny's Bakery. The owners, Dearborn schoolteachers Wesley Gilpin and Lewis Lash, a specialist in visual education, first did extensive remodeling. Everything was au courant with the newest type of screen, air conditioning, fireproof construction, and a reinforced floor that held 270 people.
Local historian Wayne Clements remembers seeing movies on Saturday nights while his parents attended Masonic and Eastern Star meetings held upstairs in the same building.
In 1939, former teachers Dillon and Geraldine Wolverton from Middleville, near Grand Rapids, moved to Chelsea to open the Sylvan, a modern theater at 218 South Main, across from the Princess. It had 450 spring-edge seats, air conditioning, excellent acoustics, and a crying room with a big picture window so mothers with fussy infants could still watch the movie. The Princess couldn't compete and closed the same year.
In 1949, McLaughlin Oil Company built the Dexter Theater next to its gas station on Main and Baker. Longtime Dexter resident Dorothy Bates recalls the grand opening: "We were all excited. It was a big deal to have a movie theater in a small town. We all flocked down." The Dexter Leader reported: "The neon sign and the large amount of light gives a good impression as one drives into Dexter at night." Carol Jones, who grew up on a farm north of Dexter, remembers that all the elementary school children in Dexter were invited to an annual Christmas program at the theater, hosted by the local Kiwanis: "We'd see a movie and be given a bag of candy and popcorn."
In the 1950s and 1960s, the towns' movie theaters succumbed to competition from television and from Ann Arbor's bigger selection of cinematic fare. The Dexter Theater closed in 1963, but the cinderblock building with a brick and porcelain enamel front still stands at 3007 Main Street--one of the last remaining vestiges of a time when small-town residents could gather to discover big new worlds close to home.
[Originally published in May, 2010.]