When the Frauenthal Center—then known as the Michigan Theater—debuted at Western Avenue and Third Street in downtown Muskegon on Sept. 16, 1930, the Great Depression had left Muskegon, and the entire country, reeling. The unemployment rate in Michigan skyrocketed to about 34 percent between 1930 and 1933; Muskegon businesses were shuttering; families were barely getting by.
In light of these dark days, there was little fanfare for the opening of the theater—a venue billed as Muskegon’s first “100 percent talkies” motion picture house that, on its first night, showed “Queen High,” a movie about Broadway that starred Ginger Rogers and Charlie Ruggles, and “Murder Mystery,” a Laurel and Hardy short film. Tickets cost 50 cents for evening shows and 30 cents for matinees.
“‘Tuesday evening, September 16, 1930, at 7 o’clock the curtain goes up on a dedication of the New Theatre for Muskegon,’” the Schlossman Theaters company wrote in an ad in the Muskegon Chronicle. “The management will forego the usual ceremonies attending the dedication of theatres of this character. There will be no special invitations, but the theatre will be opened to the public of Muskegon and surrounding country to attend as they choose.”
Despite the decision to skip an opening celebration, the theater group headed by, as the Frauenthal puts it, “Muskegon’s own movie mogul, Paul Schlossman,” still touted the new $690,000 theater and noted in its ad that the Michigan Theater would play a starring role in the life of the city.
“With the opening of the new Michigan Theater, Muskegon can boast the best in Michigan, outside of Detroit, and second to none in the United States for towns our size,” the ad read. “The new Michigan Theater is a source of deepest gratification to the Schlossman Theatres, Inc., for it realizes an early ambition to give Muskegon the best and a little more perhaps than a town our size can afford.”
As we know now, the Michigan Theater would go on to draw crowds throughout the coming decades, providing entertainment for those hoping for some respite from reality during the Great Depression and World War II. Within the city, it was often a beacon of hope for those in Muskegon—a structure that stood tall after a number of fires along Western Avenue in the 1930s and 40s, including a $300,000 blaze that devastated the neighboring Occidental Hotel in 1936. It too was one of the few historic structures in downtown Muskegon to escape the wrecking ball that leveled so many of the area’s buildings in order to make way for the massive indoor mall. As Muskegon once again faced soaring unemployment rates in the 1970s, the Michigan Theater shuttered—but was saved by a group of community advocates and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
Using a $1.5 million gift from local industrialist A. Harold Frauenthal, the Foundation purchased the entire block of Western Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets—and the Michigan Theater began its transformation into what we now know as the Frauenthal Center.
This year, as the Frauenthal Center marks its 90th anniversary, the historic venue that is now home to the West Michigan Symphony and Muskegon Civic Theatre and hosts numerous events, from concerts to comedy shows, will return to its roots. The Frauenthal Center just announced it will host 11 free family movies, beginning in February and running through December 2020. All of them, as promised by Schlossman, will be “talkies.”
“As we celebrate our 90th anniversary this year, our free family movie day series allows us to return to our historic beginnings as a movie house, opening our doors and welcoming families throughout West Michigan to enjoy entertainment in our spectacular facility free of charge,” Frauenthal Center Executive Director Eric Messing said in a news release.
The series schedule is as follows:
- Sunday, Feb. 16: Toy Story 4
- Sunday, March 15: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
- Sunday, April 5: Aladdin (the 2019 version)
- Sunday, May 24: A Wrinkle in Time
- Sunday, June 28: Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
- Sunday, July 26: Incredibles 2
- Sunday, Aug. 23: Dumbo
- Sunday, Sept. 27: Black Panther
- Sunday, Oct. 25: Coco
- Sunday, Nov. 22: Mulan
- Sunday, Dec. 27: Frozen II
Each of the movies are free and open to the public; no tickets are required. All movies will begin at 3pm, with doors opening at 2:15pm. For more information, visit the Frauenthal’s website by clicking here.