Shockwaves were felt throughout the creative and moviegoing communities on June 12, when the iconic Main Art Theatre billboard in Royal Oak announced that it would not reopen. The message was that their landlord had thrown them out and the 80-year journey the theatre and community went through together.
The theatre's closing saga began more than a year before, at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. On March 24, 2020, Governor Whitmer's stay-at-home order went into effect and closed every non-essential business. Minari starring Steven Yeun from Troy and French Exit starring Michele Pfeifer.
When lockdown ended, there was anticipation about when movie theaters would reopen. Each new wave of business openings passed over the struggling industry; concerns grew about whether or not the big chains would be able to survive, many worried about the smaller independent theaters as well.
Alarm bells went off when movie theaters were given the green light to reopen, but the Main Art Theatre remained closed. At the time, Landmark, the company that operated the beloved theatre, assured the community that it would reopen eventually. Margaret Gerber, Vice President of marketing and publicity for Landmark, released this statement:
"The decision has been made to try and keep theaters closed that aren't covering their expenses. As far as when it will reopen, I'm not exactly sure."
This assuaged the community's fears until that June day when the billboard announced that the closure was permanent.
The community reacted with anger and vowed to save the institution.
Cornerstone of Culture
First opening in 1941, the Main Art Theatre grew in popularity over the decades. It became one of the most iconic locations in Royal Oak, a mainstay in an ever-changing city.
In the 1990s, the theatre started showing independent and foreign films. This helped grow its importance to the creative community and remain a vital part of the area. It also brought in new visitors to the area.
The theatre also saw its fair share of romance, from first dates to nights out for couples looking for an escape. Lisa Breuer and her husband are one of those couples. She is the president of the Royal Oak Woman's Club. She talked about the importance of the Main Art Theatre to her family:
"My husband and I always really enjoyed seeing films there. ... My husband's German, so any time there was a German film, we'd always try and go see it. We have a lot of good memories there."
Like Breuer, Jason Krzysiak loves the legendary place. It was such an essential part of his life that he is the Friends of the Main Art Theatre leader, a nonprofit organization seeking to reopen the landmark. The group talked about how important the theatre was to them personally, but the discussions deepened, and they began talking about how much it meant to the community.
"The films and the culture that are central to this community, I think, have a strong anchor in that building. ... For generations of moviegoers in this area, it has immense significance." He continued to add that he wants to bring A.F. Jonna in on the conversation. Krzysiak says that they plan on "extending and creating a relationship with the property owners to say: 'Hey this isn't just any other property that you own. This is a cornerstone of the culture of the community that they operate and live in as well.'"
Krzysiak and his group may have some success with A.F. Jonna. Royal Oak deputy city manager Tom Fenton told local reporters that despite what the billboard claimed, it appears that Landmark decided to terminate the lease, not the property owner.
The initial conversations between the group and A.F. Jonna have been polite but offered no real insight into what the plan is for the space. Krzysiak said, "They have been courteous but … they've basically said that there is no plan for the property at this time."
Fenton encouraged Friends of the Main Art Theatre to keep working with A.F. Jonna to figure out if it's even feasible for the theatre to reopen. He also revealed that the property company went through other movie theatre operators to keep it open to no avail.
However, residents taking over a theatre has precedent. In Redford, residents started the nonprofit Motor City Theatre Organ Society and have been running the Redford Theatre since 1977.
Before the Friends of the Main Art Theatre can do anything, they need to raise money. Breuer and Krzysiak have put together a fundraiser at Bowlero Lanes and Lounge on College. There will be a cash bar, door prizes, a raffle, and music.
Tickets are $15 and $30 and $130 for a lane with up to six bowlers.
Check out the Friends of the Main Art Theatre website for more details.