The historic Court Theater, which was built back in 1938 and is located at 1216 Court Street in Saginaw, is emblematic of an age pre-dating the advent of television, when dozens of movie houses such as The Mahr, The Franklin, and The Michigan theaters populated the region as community social centers that afforded people the luxury of escaping into the mysteries and wonders of new worlds and narratives that would flash upon the silver screen.
Many of the movie theatres of the 1920s and 1930s were so grand that people nicknamed them "picture palaces." Exteriors were gaudy, electric extravaganzas in the style of Art Deco, Middle Eastern or Asian architectures. Inside these palaces, smartly uniformed ushers led moviegoers through luxurious marble-lined halls the size of cathedrals, under crystal chandeliers, and up plushy carpeted stairs to their seats.
The aim of constructing these grand theatres was to encourage people to see films frequently; and the tactic worked well: In 1930, at the start of the Depression and when the population of the United States was 122 million, Americans were going to the movies 95 million times each week.
Sadly, the allure and social activity generated by this architectural Art Deco jewel known as The Court Theater was silenced when it closed its doors back in 2015, sitting vacant and slowly falling into disrepair. But thankfully, the vision and commitment of Tom & Stephanie Braley has opened a new chapter in the legacy of this iconic jewel.
The couple purchased the theater back in April, 2016 and have diligently engaged in a meticulous renovation of the 401-seat venue, fully refurbishing it to its original splendor and augmenting its technology to serve a myriad of uses.
Tom explains that he first got the idea about acquiring the Court Theater back around the 2015 holiday season three years ago. “My wife Stephanie and I were coming up Mason by Court Street and saw the marquee on the theatre saying it was for sale and listed by Vein Realty. I called the number out of curiosity and asked what the price was and told the listing agent I might be back with her,” explains Tom.
“I run a wealth advisory practice here in Saginaw for Wells Fargo Advisors; and my wife owns Paetz Photography, and was thinking about taking on a new project. I asked my wife what she thought, and then called the realtor back and negotiated a price. She phoned back 10 minutes later and said, ‘It’s yours – how do you want to pay for it?’ At that point I phoned my wife back and said: ‘Wow honey – we’re in the movie business!”
Given the realities of these modern times, Tom plans to create a multi-use venue that reaches well beyond serving as a simple movie house. “My vision is for The Court to serve as both a community theatre and a movie house. We knew that showing films was important to maintain that aspect of the theatre, but our goal is to make it sustainable by doing more varied community events, similar to The State Theatre up in Bay City, along with the Vassar Theatre and other venues on the Northern west side of Michigan,” notes Tom.
The renovation project itself presented many challenges. “All of what you see here is new, from the carpeting to the valance,” states Tom. “We weren’t interested in an exact renovation but wanted to keep as much as we could historically while also modernizing it and making it more aesthetic.”
“The draperies were made of burlap with a black wall behind it that showed its age, plus there were cracks in the exterior walls that had to be fixed and we had some issues at the back end of the theatre that needed to be correctly resolved. Back in the day they took out two major beams where you see the valance and had a reason for doing it, although I’m not sure what it was. Plus, we had to modernize the sound and upgrade the technology. I wanted to create an environment acoustically that could do many things in a fashion that ten years from now will still be viable.”
Resplendent with its Art Deco motif, the design for the newly refurbished Court was envisioned by Stephanie Braley and Mike Krygier, who also handled construction and installation of improvements to the theater, which included creating acoustic panels that bring the reverb and echo down to nothing. “You can hear a person talking in a normal voice from the stage, which is perfect for small productions. We also have a mixing area for the P.A. and all our sound technology is digitized,” notes Tom.
“We can still show 35 mm films, but unfortunately its really difficult to get the things you want to show nowadays,” reflects Tom. “We felt to go down that road we would never be a first-run movie house, so we’d focus on being a second run movie house; although, if someone rents the venue for a Town Hall gathering and wishes to project slides or show visuals, we have all those capabilities. Presently, we don’t have any stage lighting in the theatre, so will rent that type of technology until we get our feet on the ground and generate some cash flow.”
“The stage can accommodate a 12-piece band easily and we’ve built a temporary platform coming off the aisle where a comedian can roam, or a lead singer can pull away from the back-line aspects of a musical group,” notes Tom. “The stage is 20 x 30 feet so you can do a lot with it.”
With a newly constructed concessions area The Court Theatre will serve traditional popcorn, nachos, pretzels, and candy, nut no hot dogs or anything like that starting out. Until they get their beer and wine license, any group wishing to pull a permit can bring in beer and wine to augment the revenue generated from their event.
In moving forward as a second-run movie house, Tom says that the potential for drawing larger audiences is higher because second-run films are not on DVD yet. “In June we’ll start to do more regular film showings and by Fall we’ll have a regular programming line-up.”
“As for our live shows, if any promoters are interested we have a scaled rate tier for renting the venue,” he explains. “Depending upon the size of the event, we’ll present various options. We have a barebones rental fee for those that supply all the things they need for their production, or we can provide some things that the promoter may not want to deal with - or we can handle all the things needed to present your show – it’s entirely an à la carte approach. Cleaning up for 90 people coming to watch a recital is easier to do than if filling the whole house, so we’ll gauge the pricing by the nature of the event.”
People interested in renting The Court Theater can phone Tom at 989-791-2109 and leave a message, and a recording about upcoming events will contain a roster of upcoming events as the theater moves into high-gear. You can also find out more by visiting their website at courtstreettheater.com or checking out their facebook page.
9th February, 2024