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One of the last of its kind: the Senate Theater

The Senate Theater, currently up for sale, in  June 2010.
The Senate Theater, currently up for sale, in June 2010.
Author's Collection

Today, if somebody wants to go see a movie they head for the nearest movie multi-plex, usually some distance today.  These theaters have a multitude of screens, and at any given time can have as many different films as it has screens.  In the past, however, this was not so.  Films just released would be played at first run movie houses downtown, such as the Fox, the United Artist, etc., and going to one of these films would be a major event, worthy of getting dressed up for the evening.  For the more casual movie-goer, second- run neighborhood theaters offered up these films after they left the downtown theaters.  One such neighborhood theater was Michigan Avenue's Senate.

The Senate theater, located at 6424 Michigan Avenue, just east of Livernois, came into existence during the era of the silent film, being built in 1926.  At this time, movies were accompanied by live music played during the film, setting the mood and acting as the film score.  This theater, like many of its fellow movie houses, came equipped with an organ system for this purpose; this would be crucial to its later survival.  It could seat about 1200 people, and had only one screen, unlike today's mega-plexes.  it also was occasionally hosted live acts, such as the young entertainer Danny Thomas.  It was remodeled several times, first into an Art Deco motif, and then into the Art Moderne.  From its inception it showed movies to countless individuals in the area, and did so through the mid- 1950s.  At the end of its run it was turned into an X- rated movie house, but this did not last long: By the mid- to - late fifties it was closed. 

This is not the end of the story, due in a large part to its organ sound system.  The Detroit Theater Organ Club (later the Detroit Theater Organ Society) had saved the Fisher Theater's magnificent organ, which had been removed in 1960 for remodeling from a movie theater, and had been kept by the club at a smaller facility, which was soon outgrown.  After finding the Senate was available, the club fixed up the theater and restored it to its former glory, holding monthly concerts on this piece of instrumental history here for the next four decades.  The Senate, with its seating reduced to about nine hundred seats, brought this instrument of the silent era into the present day, though regrettably it could not accompany movies as it was intended, due to the removal of the projectors from the theater prior to the club taking possession of the facility.

This era ended at the end of 2009.  The DTOS abandoned the theater, moving the organ to the Redford Theater in Northwest Detroit, where hopefully it will someday be installed.  The Senate is now left to the elements again, having been placed up for sale.  Unless someone with a vision for the redevelopment of this theater steps forward and preserves it, the curtains may have come down on it, one of the last of its kind, for the final time.


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