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Before Detroit was known as Motown or the Motor City, it was called the Paris of the Midwest. Its Parisian landscapes and architecture made it a cultural hub and a vibrant place to live in the early 1920s. The other big boom for Detroit in those days besides cars was the theater and entertainment industry. Detroit had over 100 movie houses and theaters by the 1930s and some of the most luxurious theaters and halls in the entire world, rivaling those in New York or Chicago. Big names like The Fox, The Adams, The Michigan and The United Artist theaters dominated the first-run movie business in Detroit. Other notable theaters of the day like The Alger, The Eastown, The National and the Riviera were also big players in the local theater and film industry. All of these major movie houses would not have existed if it were not for this building on the right, known as the Detroit Film Exchange.



With such a rich musical and theatrical history, one would think that Detroit would be one of the foremost cities for the performance arts, but in the wake of scandals and class action lawsuits the industry dried up and headed west to Hollywood. The roaring 1920s, as they are often called, was a time in the movie industry for ruthless and cunning businessmen to establish empires made from film collections and the distributions of such collections. Detroit, along with Chicago and New York, was seen as the destination city for theater because of abundance of grand theaters and the infrastructure to run large, costly operations. That infrastructure started in the late 1890s when Vitascopes (early film projectors) appeared. The Vitascope was an early precursor to the film projector and was used in “Nickelodeons” (movies costing only a nickel) throughout the county in the very early 1900s. Detroit had many Nickelodeons and its vast array of theaters capitalized early on in the “talking picture” movement.

To the left: A movie poster for one of Walt Disney's early films. Date & title are unknown.


Detroit, a town known for many early achievements, opened the second Vitascope hall in America. They soon began popping up throughout the midwestern states. This new technology used a rapid succession of negatives projected through a lens, enlarging motion and bringing once static images to life. These films were accompanied by live bands, orchestras, and Wurlitzer organs for audio and sound. However, this method was quickly growing out dated as syncopated films with sound took over the screens at theaters and Nickelodeon halls in the 1930s. One of the founders of the industry in Detroit was John H. Kunsky. He is credited for building Detroit’s first proper theater, The Columbia in Detroit, which opened in 1911. He is said to have owned over twenty theaters and more than half of the mighty “first-run” operations in town.


Below is a short list of the movie theaters John Kunsky once owned:


Adams Theater (1917) 1,770 seats <--onlynDetroit 
Alhambra Theater (1915) 1,475 seats
Bijou Theatre (1906) 314 seats
Birmingham Theatre (1927) 1,250 seats
Capitol Theater (1922) 3,384 seats
Columbia Theatre (1911) 1,006 seats
Fisher Theatre (1928) 2,975 seats
Madison Theatre (1917) 1,806 seats
Michigan Theater (1926) 4,038 seats
Oriental Theater (1927) 2,950 seats
Redford Theatre (1928) 2,051 seats
Royal Oak (1927) 1,700 seats
State Theater (1925) 2,967 seats
Strand Theatre (1915) 1,400 seats

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