The Michigan Theater was one of the most visually stunning and opulent theater houses in Detroit when it opened in August of 1926. Designed by Cornelius and George Rapp, the 4,000-seat theater was one of the largest cinema houses in the city. A 4-story lobby flanked by marble columns, with ornate chandeliers and works of art could hold 1,000 moviegoers at a time, waiting to see vaudeville acts including the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Betty Grable.
During the silent film era, an enormous Wurlitzer organ played along with the movies. In 1929, the theater was wired for sound. Initially the theater had a mixture of live performances and films, but gradually the theater moved over to showing mostly movies. Louis Armstrong played his first theater engagement in Detroit at the Michigan in June of 1936.
At one point Detroit had over 20 major theaters in the downtown area alone, but by the 1960's many of them were struggling financially. The Michigan held on until 1971, when it showed it's last picture. The theater changed hands several times in the 1970's, as new owners tried different uses. An elegant supper club lasted only a few months, and a stint as a rock music venue left much of the interior trashed. By 1976 the theater had closed again.
With the theater in such poor condition, the owners initially wanted to demolish it to make way for a parking lot, but a structural survey indicated that removing the theater would weaken the 13-story office building attached to it. Instead, the theater was gutted starting in 1977, and converted into a multi-level parking garage. Parts of the theater were preserved, including the lobby, proscenium arch, and decorative plasterwork on the ceiling. The uppermost part of the balcony and the projection room remained in place, though not accessible to the public.
In the years since, the parking garage has become something of a tourist destination. Curiosity-seekers from around the world peek through the rolling gate at the Italian Renaissance details visible from the street. It's not unusual to see football fans tailgating underneath the same dome that once echoed with Louis Armstrong. The Michigan Theater has been featured in the films 8 Mile, The Island, and Alex Cross.
Today the office building is only 35% occupied. It sold in 2014 to Boydell Development Co.