Keys to the Past: Ann Arbor’s Legacy of Theater Organs Creates Timeless Moviegoing Experience for Patrons
It was New Year’s Eve 2011 and we wanted a low-key way to celebrate.
My husband Brian suggested seeing The Artist, a critically acclaimed black-and-white-silent French film, at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater that evening.
The theater’s Screening Room featured a couple of showings, and we opted for the 9 pm show. That way, we could see the film and still get home to watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
When we arrived at the theater, we saw a musician playing a Hammond organ about 20 minutes before The Artist started.
The organist provided pre-show entertainment and didn’t accompany The Artist during its screening, but his performance sparked our curiosity about the instrument, including the 1927 Barton pipe organ in the Michigan’s Main Auditorium.
For us, the theater organ served as a brief musical portal to the past, recalling a bygone era when it accompanied silent films at movie palaces from the 1900s to the 1920s.
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed seeing organists perform on Barton pipe organs at the Michigan Theater—the only one left in Ann Arbor—and Detroit’s Redford Theatre. Those beautiful theater organs offered warm welcomes as we took our seats to watch different films.
Nearly a decade later, I wanted to learn more about local theater organs, the theaters that housed them, and the organists who play them.
All for the Music: Remembering longtime WEMU and WCBN DJ Michael G. Nastos
Michael G. Nastos, a longtime music journalist and radio DJ in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, died over the weekend. He was 70 years old.
Nastos had been struggling with health problems and was using a wheelchair for the past year or so in public appearances—of which there were many.
Because even with the issues he was facing, nothing could keep Nastos away from engaging with the driving love of his life: music.
The Years Before Punk Broke: Remembering Roland Diaz-Pérez, who put Ann Arbor's Club Heidelberg on the map in the pre-grunge era
From August 1989 through the fall of 1991, dozens of concerts occurred above the German restaurant at 215 North Main Street in Ann Arbor, often featuring national touring bands who would become household names during the grunge era.
Rolando “Roland” Diaz-Pérez and his No Bull Productions team were responsible for producing these shows at Club Heidelberg, and these concerts deeply influenced the 1990s DIY music scene in Washtenaw County.
News surfaced that Diaz-Pérez died in April 2022 in Paraguay, where he had lived for two decades, but his legacy will live on in Ann Arbor music history.
Michael Erlewine releases a free PDF book that chronicles Ann Arbor's 1960s counterculture scene
In a recent Facebook post, former Ann Arborite Michael Erlewine posted a link to his free PDF book Ann Arbor: The 1960s Scene, saying:
Here are a series of articles on Ann Arbor, Michigan culture in the late 1950s and 1960s. It is mostly some history of the time from my view and experience. I could add more to them, but I’m getting older by the day and I feel it is better to get something out there for those few who want to get a sense of Ann Arbor back in those times.
I hope there are some out there who can remember these times too. As for those of were not there, here is a taste as to what Ann Arbor was like back then.
Long before he became a software pioneer who created astrological programs and, later, the All Music franchise and its spinoffs, Erlewine was an integral member of Ann Arbor's 1960s counterculture scene as co-founder of blues band The Prime Movers, which eventually featured Iggy Pop on drums.
Put a Spell on You: Michael Erlewine on the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
During the early folk revival of the pre-Bob Dylan 1960s, music historian and author Michael Erlewine says fans were more interested in finding the most authentic form of the music than the next great songwriter. Conserving a dying art form was the priority at gatherings like the Newport Folk Festival.
So when music heads turned their attention to the electric blues, which was largely ignored on the folk circuit, they had the same impulse. But they soon learned it was misguided.
"We wanted to revive it -- to preserve it, protect it, and save it," Erlewine says. "But to our huge surprise, it wasn't dead. It didn't need reviving. It was just playing across town behind a racial curtain of some kind. To find what we thought was a dying music was very much alive, it was just another whole world for us."
In August 1969, a group of University of Michigan students led by organizers Cary Gordon and John Fishel, brought that world home to Ann Arbor with the first ever Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
As founders of the town's resident blues band, The Prime Movers -- which eventually featured drummer Iggy Pop --
and avid students of Chicago blues, Erlewine and his brother Daniel Erlewine were enlisted to help track down and care for the talent.
And there was so much talent: B.B. King, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Big Mama Thornton, Son House. The list goes on. Nearly 20,000 people are estimated to have witnessed that first-of-its-kind gathering at the Fuller Flatlands near U-M's North Campus.
With another Ann Arbor Blues Festival reboot coming on Saturday, August 19, at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds, it seemed like a good time to check in with Erlewine, who went on to found the All-Music Guide and edit several books on blues and jazz. His 2010 book with photographer Stanley Livingston, Blues in Black and White, is an excellent, loving tribute to the original blues festivals in pictures and prose.
Erlewine talked with us by phone from his home in Big Rapids about the heady days of those early fests, tripping out on Howlin' Wolf's massive voice, and drinking early into the morning with Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Big Mama Thornton.
Old Folk: The Ark's Ann Arbor Folk Festival turns 40
History is a mystery, even when you have direct access to media coverage of an event.
The first Ann Arbor Folk Festival was held June 13, 1976, headlined by John Prine and Leon Redbone. The show was hosted by the Power Center and, as always, it was to benefit The Ark, which was just 11 years old at that point and still in its original location, a house at 1421 Hill St.
Doug Fulton’s June 14, 1976, Ann Arbor News review of that first fest really only covers the early part of the evening -- newspaper print deadlines, you know -- and Prine and Redbone are mentioned with no commentary.
But Fulton did write a sentence that would reappear -- in slightly altered forms -- through much of The Ark’s existence: “The occasion was a benefit for the Ark, one of the few remaining 'coffee-houses' in the country still specializing in folk music of all kinds, and lately in financial trouble.”
In fact, The Ark could have just changed its name to Financial Trouble since the venue was constantly in jeopardy through the mid-'80s until this 1986 article declared otherwise: "The Ark No Longer Needs The Festival To Stay Afloat".
Since that first festival, and two moves later, The Ark is one of the most respected and well-oiled folk- and roots-music concert venues in the country, though the nonprofit still counts on the Ann Arbor Folk Festival for part of its operating revenue. This year’s edition, held January 27 and 28 at Hill Auditorium, has one of the festival’s biggest lineups yet, featuring headliners Kacey Musgraves and Jenny Lewis on Friday and the Indigo Girls, Margo Price, and Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him) on Saturday. (If you're somehow still undecided about going, The Ark has also compiled playlists for night one and night two of the fest.
But if the festival started in 1976, why is this weekend’s celebration its 40th, instead of the 42nd?