Detroit's historic Alger Theater to screen its first movie in 30 years

“Young Frankenstein” kicks off summer-long Brew & View series Sunday afternoon in Morningside

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For the first time in 30 years, Detroit's Alger Theater is planning to screen a film in the historic Art Deco movie house that opened in 1935 at the corner of East Warren and East Outer Drive.

As part of its new Brew & View fundraiser series, the Friends of the Alger Theater will show Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m.

Located on the city's far east side in the Morningside neighborhood, the 825-seat Alger is finally ready to open its doors for its first movie since 1985. 

It's been a long time coming for the Friends of the Alger, which under the leadership of Geoff Gowman, purchased the building back in 1986. 

Board president Helen Broughton could not be more excited.

"We have an electrician who's been doing some work for us," she says, "and he just got the lights on the sides of the seats in the aisles to light up. We were like, 'Oh, my god, the lights are on!'" 

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The theater's renovation, which is still a work in progress, recently got a major boost from the Lear Corporation, and Broughton is eager to show off their hard work.

"Lear is stepping up and giving us so much to be prepared for this event," she says. "They're helping us clear away years of dust. They've got all their volunteers coming in and pumping the water out of our basement, cleaning all the seats ... helping with the electrical work, and they're paying for the projection for this film, too. It's just amazing the amount of work they're doing." 

The choice of Young Frankenstein, Broughton says, "is a bit of a spoof on our history," a nod to the Alger's last days in the mid-1980s when it was known as a "blood-and-gore" joint. Its last hurrah was a double feature of Friday the 13th flicks (parts IV and V) in 1985.

The theater was built by Saul and Hattie Sloan in 1935 and leased to Detroit-based producer George Washington Trendle, who wrote the screenplay to the original Lone Ranger movie. On opening night that year, the Alger hosted another twin bill, featuring The Girl From 10th Avenue and Oil for the Lamps of China

Tomorrow's screening is the first of four planned at the Alger this summer, scheduled to take place on the second Sunday of the month from June through September.

The theater's ongoing restoration, now three decades in the making, has not been without its challenges.

Workers make last-minute preparations for Sunday's screening of "Young Frankenstein."
  • Workers make last-minute preparations for Sunday's screening of "Young Frankenstein."
"Our documented history is one of the things we're struggling with," Broughton says. "We know who built the theater, we know who owned the theater ... but we don't have the original drawings, we don't know who the architect was, and we don't really have any images of what the interior looked like in order to be able to replicate the finishes.

"There are beautiful wall sconces on the walls, and one of them's been restored, and it's great, so we know that. There are a couple of areas where you can see the decorative designs that were in the plasterwork, but it's going to be a guessing game. We're kind of piecing together what the interior looked like from both what's visible and from drawing on people's stories." 

Although the Alger is not yet fully restored, Broughton wants visitors to see it in its current state so that old and new visitors alike can imagine the possibilities.
The Alger in 1950.
  • The Alger in 1950.

Robert Neil, who grew up just a few blocks from the Alger, remembers seeing his first movie there back in 1968.

"My dad took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey," he says. "I was 3, and I was awed by it. It was our first movie together." 

Neil, 49, fondly remembers walking to the Alger with his friends nearly every Saturday afternoon in the 1970s. "Along the way we'd always stop at Rose & Dom's for candy," he says. "I remember seeing The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Earthquake, and Airport '77. The big memory I have is going upstairs to the bathroom and was invited into the projection room during Planet of the Apes."

Lynn Simoncini, 50, also grew up within walking distance of the Alger.

"We went there almost every Saturday," she says. "It anchored that whole neighborhood. Going there was always topped off with something to eat at Sanders [across the street] and maybe a trip to Kresge to check out the toys next door.

"The Alger was a place to escape the heat, too," she says. "None of us had air back then."

Simoncini, who started dating her husband when they were still in high school, says she saw a lot of movies there over the years. "The Blues Brothers might have been the last movie we saw together there."

And on Sunday, they'll get a chance to relive a little east-side history.


The first Alger Brew & View fundraiser takes place Sunday, June 14, at 5:30 p.m. (Doors at 4:30.) Sunday's members-only event will include beer from Motor City Brewing Works, as well as pop, water, and popcorn for sale. Membership in the Friends of the Alger Theater starts at $35. Patrons can pay at the door or online via PayPal. Donations made online before Sunday include a free pop or beer. 

For more information, go to algertheater.org. 
Dave Mesrey is a contributing editor to metrotimes.com and a native of Detroit's Morningside neighborhood.


(Correction: This article originally stated that George W. Trendle built the Alger Theater.
Trendle, in fact, leased it from developers Saul and Hattie Sloan.)

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