Family Theatre

Address: Woodward and Hamilton
City: Birmingham
State: MI
County: Oakland
Open: 1913
Capacity: 286
Owner History:
Number of visits to this page: 1970
Info Updates:
2/23/2003 - Web
As Recalled By Your Host, Hartland Smith And His Father, Edward R. Smith, Jr. Birminghams first movie house, known as the FAMILY THEATER, opened February 12, 1913. The architect was John Buckborough who lived near the northwest corner of Adams and Big Beaver Roads. The contractor was O.A. Young. Panels were decorated by Carl Gibson who at one time was employed by the DETROIT SCENERY CO. which had its studio on the west side of the Rouge Valley, a little north of Willits. The stenciling was done by Robert Purdy of Birmingham. Gibson also painted the curtain which, according to the BIRMINGHAM ECCENTRIC showed that he was an artist in his own right. 300 People attended the opening performance. (Every one of the 286 seats must have been filled!) A minstrel show was presented which included comic songs, new jokes and funny sayings. The admission price was 10 cents. This photo shows buildings which once occupied the site where DEMERYS, CROWLEYS and THE PALLADIUM were later located at the northeast corner of Woodward and Hamilton. The FAMILY THEATER is in the center of the picture. At the left you can see new tires in the window of an automobile service garage which later housed the BIRMINGHAM ECCENTRIC. To the right of the theater is Poppletons Store, the site of a famous robbery where the criminal was fatally wounded by Edgar Poppleton whose skull was grazed by a bullet during the gun fight. As a consequence, Edgar was stone deaf for the rest of his life. At the far right you can see the home of Sam Mills, an employee of the WILSON RAILWAY GATE CO. He and his wife used to attend the theater almost every evening. Their house was later used as a portion of the ECCENTRIC printing business. The store and theater were later torn down and replaced by a Standard Oil gas station which operated on the corner for many years. The theater boasted a single projector, with a lamphouse which could be used to either illuminate the dangerously flammable nitrate movie film or glass slides advertising local businesses. This piece of equipment, as well as the theaters lighting system, was installed by Birminghams mechanical and electrical wizard, Homer Leonard, who was also the first projectionist. Succeeding movie operators included Ray Ebling, Gordon Bailey (Manleys older brother) and Edward R. Smith, Jr. The manager was John Schram. His wife sold tickets. A Mrs. Clark from Detroit provided the piano accompaniment. She had learned to play the instrument while temporarily suffering from blindness as a youngster. Since there was a new show each evening, she would improvise during the first performance, but having once viewed the program, would select more appropriate music for the second screening. Mrs. Clarks husband was a projectionist at the CENTRAL THEATER in Pontiac. Each day he would bring prints from the DETROIT FILM EXCHANGE to Birmingham aboard the D.U.R Interurban. He would jump off the electric car at the southeast corner of Woodward and Maple just long enough to place the cans of film under a tree in the tiny park next to Library Hall and then hop back aboard and proceed to Pontiac. At his convenience, the local projectionist would stop by, pick up the films and carry them to the theater. Mrs. Clark would arrive on a later car and after the show was over, shed wait for her husband at the D.U.R. station (now OLGAS KITCHEN) and the two would return to Detroit, taking the movies back with them. The theater was used primarily for the exhibition of silent movies. There were two shows each weekday evening. These usually consisted of a one reel travelogue, a two reel drama and a one reel comedy. On Saturday nights, when the farmers came to town, a serial such as A MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was added. In order to accommodate the late shopping farmers, about 2 1/2 shows would be run that evening. There were no Sunday movies, back then, in Birmingham! Almeron Whitehead, one of the founders of the ECCENTRIC as well as the EXCHANGE BANK had suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheel chair. Earl Randall, Wylie Groves and Percy Burnett were some of the young men who wheeled Mr. Whitehead up Woodward to the theater, each evening, from his residence on the site of the present BIRMINGHAM THEATER. There were a number of occasions when the FAMILY THEATER served as an auditorium for school plays. The boiler room in the basement was used as a makeshift dressing area for the boys. The girls had to scoot out the back door and make their costume changes in the nearby home of Mr. and Mrs. Mills. Here is the FAMILY THEATER viewed from a slightly different angle. You will note that this rather early entertainment center dates back to the horse and buggy era. The billboards advertise The White Glove Band. It would be interesting to know whether this was a full length feature, a two reel dramatic short or some form of live entertainment. I guess that will probably remain a mystery unless some film or theatrical buff can enlighten us. Although it was normally used as a movie house, the theater on at least one occasion hosted a travelling theatrical company billed as the DREAM GIRLS. Due to an extensive publicity campaign the show drew a capacity crowd. However, once the curtain went up, it became quite evident that the DREAM GIRLS were presenting nothing more than an old fashioned burlesque show. Needless to say, the proper ladies and gentlemen of Birmingham were very upset and soon began walking out on the performance. It wasnt long before the theater was nearly empty, except for a few curious teenaged boys and unaccompanied adult males who remained for the finale.
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