The Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, formerly known as the Michigan Theater, was built in 1929 by Muskegon’s own movie mogul, Paul Shlossman. His trademark camel-hair coat, the way his hat tipped over one eye, and his striking demeanor were all clues to Schlossman’s colorful life as a showman.
Between 1915 and 1917, the Schlossman Company contracted architect C. Howard Crane to design three of Muskegon’s great theaters – the Rialto, Majestic and Reagent theaters. In 1920 Schlossman’s movie empire expanded when he was appointed secretary-treasurer of the Strand Amusement Company of Muskegon Heights. He ardently built the Strand Theater on Broadway in the Heights.
Along with Crane, Schlossman took a personal interest in the design of the Michigan Theater. Built as a theater for “100% all talking motion pictures,” the cost was a mere $690,000. The theater opened on September 17, 1930 receiving rave reviews from the community, as patrons were awed with its “extraordinary beauty and grace.” An advertisement in the Muskegon Chronicle proudly stated, “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 a town our size.”
The architectural styling of the theater is Moorish, or Spanish renaissance, and gleamed with extraordinary gold accents, cherubs and griffins. The ceiling and walls were adorned with beautiful ornamental light fixtures, the carpet and opera chairs covered with rich velour, and the stage enclosed with lipstick red draperies. Many ornate carvings, arches and intricate plasterwork abound. The ceiling is surrounded by plaster shells and comes to a large acoustic dome, or oculus, in the center. Suspended from the roof hanging by steel wires, the ceiling is not unlike the suspended acoustical ceilings with which we are all familiar.
Almost 30 years since its grand opening, the theater closed for a brief time to be refurbished. Showing wear from almost constant use, the managers at that time thought the theater needed “sprucing up.” Keeping with the tastes of the 50s, they painted over the colorful Spanish Renaissance interior with two muddy shades of beige. Upon reopening, the theater continued to operate as a movie house, even through the unfortunate demise of Schlossman’s company in the late 1960s. Then in the early 70s the Michigan Theater seemed to have an ill-fated future itself as it stood boarded up.
Fortunately a glimmer of light shined through the boards when an ad hoc group of citizens approached both the City and County of Muskegon to save the beloved theater. Finding no help from the municipalities, and with the wrecking ball ready to swing, the citizen’s group approached the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. The Foundation, small in size at that time, had received a substantial gift from a local industrialist – Mr. A. Harold Frauenthal.
Mr. Frauenthal’s wishes stated that the gift be used for the good of the community, and in 1976, the Community Foundation used the funds to purchase the entire block of West Western Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets. The block included the historic Michigan Theater, an abandoned furniture store and storage space. The work of establishing the “Frauenthal Center” had begun.
Throughout the late 70s and 80s, the Community Foundation operated the Center with a variety of entertainment, including the local symphony, theater, travelogues, movies, concerts, and outside promoter events. But, a theater designed in 1930 lacked the dressing rooms, backstage areas and support spaces needed by these presentations. The Foundation began transforming the old furniture space into what is now known as the Hilt Building which houses the 170 seat Beardsley Theater, visual arts gallery, meeting rooms, rehearsal halls, dressing rooms and reception areas.
Sooner than later, renovation was due once again in the main theater. To this end, in 1992 the Community Foundation funded the creation of a master plan. $16 million in capitol needs were identified and Muskegon County voters were asked to approve a bond issue. Through their generosity the work began in 1998.
Schlossman and Crane’s vision of a Spanish castle had been restored to the theater, along with many accessibility and safety improvements. All lighting, sound and rigging was brought up to the highest current technology and was greatly expanded. Additionally, a new two-level lobby was built connecting the foyer of the old theater with the lobby of the Hilt building. The lower level holds a 100 seat restaurant and bar and additional restrooms.
Continuing to improve the quality of life for the residents of Muskegon County, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County remains committed to the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts and its future development. Many exciting performances continue to grace the stage of the Frauenthal Theater.
Call Polly Doctor at 231-332-4102 to learn how you too can play an important part in the ongoing success and preservation of Muskegon’s gem and West Michigan’s grandest theater.