This is the story of the rise
and fall of the Crystal Theater, a small neighborhood movie house in the old
Polish enclave of Michigan Avenue and Junction, on the southwest side of
Detroit. Itís where my father grew up and where I lived for the first ten
years of my life.
The Crystal was located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and
31st street. This was actually the second Crystal Theater on Michigan
Avenue. The first Crystal, located across the street and a block over, was
demolished as part of a massive road widening project in the late 1930s. It had
been in operation since the days of silent movies, so the neighborhood was
excited to welcome this new, Streamline Moderne style theatre to the area.
faÁade of the Crystal was covered with porcelain-enameled panels of Chinese
red, yellow and black. The marquee was embellished with yards of colorful neon
and hundreds of tungsten filament Mazda lamps that chased magically along the
front and undercarriage of the theaterís entrance. The Crystal certainly
wasnít as grand as the downtown movie palaces like the Fox or the United
Artists, but it was the most modern Art Deco building in the neighborhood. The
auditorium seated 568 and offered tempered warm air in the winter and
air-conditioned comfort for the summer months.
The relatively new sound equipment and movie projectors were salvaged
from the razed theater across the street.
Nearly every Detroit neighborhood had at least three or four movie
theaters within walking distance. In addition to the Crystal we had the Senate,
the Imperial and the Kramer, which was at one time the second largest movie
theater in Detroit.
The Crystal opened for business on December 28, 1938 with a
double feature; Army Girl, starring Madge Evans and Preston Foster along
with Arsene Lupin Returns, with Melvin Douglas and Virginia Bruce. The
theater opened every day at noon and closed at 3 AM in the morning, to
accommodate second shift auto factory workers not ready to call it a night
Saturday matinees at the Crystal were very popular with the
neighborhood kids. For one thin dime you could see an hour of cartoons, a
newsreel, the latest serial chapter, maybe a Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy
short and two feature films.
Saturday night at the Crystal meant free dish night.
Dinnerware manufacturers struck a deal with theater owners. to sell them their
product at wholesale prices to be given to theater patrons for the price of a
movie ticket. It kept the pottery factories open and boosted theater attendance.
Young women and housewives (who were the target market) attended the movies
weekly for months just to collect an entire set of matching china. On occasion
the Crystal offered two dishes for the price of one admission. It didnít
really matter what film was playing, the dinnerware was the star.
During World War II the movie theater was the most popular
form of entertainment. In 1946 theater attendance was at an all time high with
57% of Americans going to the movies weekly. Patrons of the Crystal were kept up
to date with events at home and on the war front with twice-weekly newsreels and
With the end of World War II, America experienced phenomenal
economic growth, due in part to the auto industry and a housing boom. Americans
had more money to spend on luxury items, gasoline was no longer being rationed
and the mass migration to the suburbs had begun. By 1950 television had become the dominant entertainment
medium in the United States. Factor
in the Hollywood Anti Trust Case of 1948, which forced movie studios to sell
their theater chains, and the old neighborhood movie houses didnít stand a
The Crystalís movie screen went dark forever on Saturday,
April 23, 1955. On Sunday morning the lobby doors were padlocked tight and the
marquee read ďCLOSED FOR BUSINESS.Ē The last picture show for the Crystal
was a double feature, The Black Dakotas starring Gary Merrill and Loophole,
a film noir drama starring Barry Sullivan.
I was born eight months after the theater closed, so I never
got to experience a double feature at the Crystal. But I listened attentively to
my father tell stories about attending the Saturday matinees, the Halloween
showings of Dracula and Frankenstein and how the manager would
eject kids for throwing popcorn at the screen.
I lived just around the corner from the Crystal on 31st
street, and would often pass it while walking with my mother to the Kramer Meat
Market, Piaskowskiís Drugs or any of the other specialized businesses that
thrived on Michigan Avenue. If it
started to rain during one of our walks we would stay dry under the Crystalís
marquee until the raindrops stopped, while I peered into the lobby windows.
Like many others before us, we left the old neighborhood in
1966 for suburbia. The Crystal sat, empty and decaying, for nearly two decades.
In the early 1970s the beautiful Streamline Moderne marquee was ripped from its
front facade, the entrance bricked over and its now rusted porcelain tiles
painted a dull yellow. The interior was gutted and the Crystal began its second
life as the Cheers Party Store. Like every other party store in the city they
sold beer and wine, cashed welfare checks and sold money orders. A sad ending to
a once grand building.
The building was ultimately destroyed by a suspicious fire. It
is now an empty lot. The once vibrant neighborhood is now pockmarked with more
empty lots, abandoned buildings, free
clinics and liquor stores. The Kramer was leveled decades ago and the Imperial
is now home to a dog food store. Only the Senate is still thriving as the home
of the Detroit Theater Organ Society.
The story of the Crystal Theater isnít unique. Dozens of
Detroit neighborhood movie houses have suffered the same fate. And the situation
isnít any different in other major cities.
The small independent theaters that have survived are now facing a new
challenge with the shift from film to digital projection. At a cost of $100,000
for a digital conversion, one in every five screens in the United States could
go dark because they canít afford to convert.
The neighborhood theater was the anchor of the community. Although the Crystal was in business for only seventeen years, it provided entertainment, information and fond memories for a generation of Detroiters who lived in the old Polish neighborhood of Michigan and Junction in the 1940s and 50s.