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Bay County Theater History
Brief history of local theater.

Early Theaters

Globe Hotel - 5th & Water st.

The first legitimate theater in Bay County dates back to 1865 and the Globe Hotel. The hotel was located on Fifth and Water streets in Bay City (then, Lower Saginaw), and was built by Judge S.S. Campbell in 1838 for his residence. Later, he converted it to this community's first hotel. In 1863, A.N. Rouech leased the hotel and named it the Globe. Two years later, Rouech decided to open up the third floor of the building for use as a theater. The first act he hired was a stock company out of Detroit, they performed for three nights and each was before a packed and enthusiastic audience.

Rouech was also responsible for the first circus coming to Bay City. In 1864, Adam Forepaugh, a prominent showman of that time, brought his circus to East Saginaw. Rouech met with Forepaugh and was able to persuade him to bringing his show over to Bay City. Tents were pitched at a corner lot located on Woodside and Jefferson. Locals flocked to the event and were thrilled by carnival acts which was also a first for many those that attended. The event was deemed a great success by Rouech and Forepaugh, and the community at large. That same spot was used for many years when the circus came to town.

Prior to Rouech opening a theater in the Globe Hotel, the few ligitimate theater acts that were staged here were held at whatever local facilities was available. About the only regular entertainment available was at local saloons. However, these type shows could hardly be considered public entertainment and only a few that considered themselves a respectable member of the community dared to be among the rogues that freqented most of these saloons. A number of the barons of local industry owned large mansions that included a level for entertainment. However, these typically were by invitation only and usually limited to those of stature in the community. Therefore, Rouech was the first to offer a place for the general public to be entertained.

In 1865, James Fraser built a hotel on the southeast corner of Center and Water. The Fraser House was the first hotel of stature built in the community, and it included a level for a fine theater and ballroom which had it's own entrance.

Westover block sketch
Westover Block

William Westover included a theater facilties in the Westover business block which opened in 1869 on the southwest corner of Center and Washington (present location of the Phoenix building). The large theater area was comprised of the third and fourth floors and was considered the best theatrical facilites north of Detroit. In 1885, the theater portion of the building was temporarily closed to allow for badly needed repairs. However, it never reopened. In Janauary of 1886 fire destroy it along with the bulding.

  • See {Newspaper coverage of fire and 1872 image of building.}

    Woods Opera Theater about 1890.
    abt. 1890: Woods Opera House
    (conical tower)

    This terrible loss for the community which had become accustomeD to enjoying quality theater. However, the tragedy was a stimulus for creating first building devoted to theater. City leaders with the support of local organization and donations from the community began construction of the Woods Opera House that year on the southeast corner of Washington and Sixth. The building was completed that year officially opening on September 17. The theater was named after it's designer, J.M. Woods of Chicago who had done the design work for the Westover Theater. It was a beautiful castle like structure that offered three levels of seating sufficient for an audience of up to 1,536. It was a first class theater facilities -- its stage had three drop curtains and was welled equipped and capable of handling most any form of entertainment. During its life time, audiences were treated and delighted by a wide variety of professional acts; vaudeville, theatrical plays, concerts, operas and comedy. Between the professional acts, local folks took to the stage to display their talents and it was a popular place for many community events. Unfortunately, the Woods Opera House did not enjoy a long history, in 1902 it was totally destroyed by fire.

  • See {History of Wood Opera House}

    Heritage Theaters

    Bijou Theater
    State Theater was originally
    the Bijou when it was built.

    It may be hard for current movie audiences to imagine what early theaters were like as today's theater buildings are very mundane and bland compared to the early theaters which were like cathederals. They were after all, the only focus, they didn't have to compete with radio and television that would come much later. You still have an opportunity to experience what these theaters were like. Thanks to concerned local citizens and their outstanding efforts there are two heritage theaters that have survived, the Temple Theater in Saginaw and the State Theater in Bay City. The Temple is much larger than the State and would be more typical of live theater buildings like the Woods Opera House. Both are open to the public and offer classic films and occasional stage performances.

    Theaters of this era and earlier were elaborately designed to create an inviting and appealing image. They typically had very intricate exteriors and uniquely decorated interiors to create a special mood that this was place where major events took place. Tall arched and sculptured walls and ceilings painted with colorful images or mosaics provided viewing entertainment for the audience as they waited for the main performance. All designed to inspired customers with a sense of expectation of what was about to be a memorable experience.

    State's Oldest Live Theater Group

    Bay City Players Theater
    The Bay City Players

    Today, the Bay City Players Theater stands alone as the only live theater in our community. They proudly hold claim to being "Michigan's oldest continuous live theater group". When hard times fell on the old motion picture theaters, the Bay City Players purchased the Pine Theater on Columbus and turned it into a theater for live plays. In recent years, a major expansion and up dating of the building was completed. All made possible by a group of dedicated supporters and performers over the years that displayed a passion and commitment to sustaining this local theater group. Thanks to them, our community still has the option to experience live theater performances that have thrilled each generation thoughout our community's history.

    Theaters, Motion Pictures & Television

    When moving pictures technology arrived, it was initially introduced into the live theater as a novelty. The earliest were very short displays of vaudeville acts that didn't require sound to understand the pictures. As the technology matured, the industry developed to the point silent movies began to share center stage with live acts. Theater houses began featuring both forms of entertainment. However it wasn't until the introduction of talking pictures, that the motion picture pushed live entertainment out of the main stream of theaters. Live acts were still booked, but they were now relegated to special occasions.

    Television that brought the most dynamic change to theater. Customers no longer "had to leave their home" to be entertained -- attendance at theaters dropped dramatically as the television sets become affordable to the average home. Theaters initially competed by reducing their prices and offering special gimmicks to draw customers in, such as, family nights, punch coupons -- when completed was a "free" ticket, gift nights (free soap, towels, etc.), but these inticements weren't able to the trend.

    If television wasn't bad enough for local theaters, along came drive-in theaters to deliver a fatal blow. These low cost theater screens located outside of the city were great for families -- a whole car load could get in for the cost of one auto. Drive-in theaters usually had a playgrounds area in front of the large screen where parents could send their kids off to play while they watched the movie. It was probably the favorite place for dating teens for a little romancing on the side.

    The stately theaters slowly closed one by one under the pressure of new technologies. Only a precious few remain today as a reminder of the majestic theater houses of the past.

  • See {Journal of Theater} page for listing of historical theaters.

    Help Us If You Can!

    Do you like this subject?
    Why not help us improve it. Add your movie memories and memorabilia to Bay-Journal. We are at a point in our community's history where the movie theaters of the past will soon be totally forgotten with the exception of the State historical theater. We would like to this section grow as a tribute to the history of theaters in Bay County's history.

    We need your help to make it happen.
    Talk to your grandparents, ask them to share their memories, photos, clippings, etc. with you -- then, share it here for all to recall this golden era of going to the movies.

  • Related Pages
    Bay City Players Pictorials/
    Heritage Theaters
    People Referenced
    Campbell, S.S. (Judge)
    Forepaugh, Adam
    Fraser, James
    Rouech, A.N.
    Westover, William
    Woods, J.M.
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City
    Bay City Players
    Bijou theater
    Detroit, MI
    Drive-in theater
    East Saginaw, MI
    First circus
    First public theater
    Fraser Hotel
    Globe Hotel
    Lower Saginaw
    Phoenix block
    Pine theater
    Silent movies
    State theater
    Talking movies
    Temple theater
    Westover block
    Woods Opera House
    Related Photos

    Anzel N. Rouech

    James Fraser
    Article Sources
    Bay County, Past & Present, book by George Butterfield.
    Bay County, Footpaths to Freeways, book by Leslie Arndt.
    Bay County Library: Polk Directories & articles.
    Tid-Bit News
    Moving Picture World, Vol. IV, of 1909, news item:
  • Bay City, Mich. -- The "Wenonah" is Bay City's newest moving picture theater, and is one that ranks among the best picture houses in the United States. Its seating capacity is 300, and the manager, Mr. Leahy was more than surprised to see the large audience that attended his playhouse on opening night.
    Musical & Dramatic Courier, New York, June 1, 1881.
  • Bay City, Mich. September 5. -- The dramatic season was opened August 25 by Sol Smith Russell in "Edgewood Folks." September 10, Augustin Daily's Fifth Avenue Company will appear in "Needles and Pins," with a matenee Saturday afternoon. September 15 we are to have "Hazel Kirks," followed by the Hess English Opera Company. The sale of reserve seats has been changed from the post office to Van Syckle's music store, -- "an agreeable change," so the ladies say. -- Presto.
  • Bay City Notes. (from our regular correspondent) September 5, 1881. -- The music trade is reported as "nothing extra," althought well represented here. G. E. Van Sycke, Centre steet, carries the larest stock of pianos and organs north of Detroit; he has the Chickering, Knabe, Hallet & Davis, Arion, Stone, and Hale pianos. Estey, Taylor and Farley and Burdett organs; and in his new and elegant store he expects to reap a golden harvest this fall.
    M. A. Root has pleasant rooms upstairs in his new block. He handles the Hazelton and Wheelock pianos; Smith American and Chase organs. The Courier is on sale at Van Syckle's music store. -- Presto.
  • The Fisher Opera House at West Bay City, Mich., was burned on Monday night of last week. Loss $20,000; insurance, $6,000.
  • Internet Resources
  • American Theater History
    Extensive list of websites on subject.
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