What it takes to save a neighborhood theater on Detroit's east side

For decades, neighborhood cinemas were commonplace throughout the city of Detroit. Today, just a handful remain, and only the Redford Theater in northwest Detroit and the Senate Theater on the city's west side have been restored and feature regular programming. But if an east side nonprofit group is successful, the Redford and Senate will soon have a cross-town compliment in the Alger Theater.
Located at East Warren Avenue and East Outer Drive, the Alger Theater has been an east side landmark since it opened in 1935. For decades, it was a cherished destination for locals, but by the 1980s the theater had fallen on hard times, and after a short stint as a B-movie house, it eventually closed.
But the Alger was not destined to molder forgotten in the elements, or worse deteriorate at the hands of scrappers. Shortly before the theater's closure, a group of concerned residents banded together to form a nonprofit, Friends of the Alger Theater, to protect what they deemed a tremendous community asset.
For 30 years, the Friends of the Alger have maintained and secured the theater to the best of their ability, subsisting on modest funding and the dedication of volunteers. Every weekend since taking ownership of the theater in 1985, volunteers like Karlene Trump and Brenda Redding have dutifully changed the custom message on the marquee -- a process that takes several hours -- to raise enough money to pay the theater's annual property taxes. A few years ago, the Friends were acknowledged for their work by the Eastside Community Network with an award essentially for "hanging in there" until they could muster enough resources to restore the theater to its former glory.
But this summer, the Friends of the Alger began to move beyond just "hanging in there." In fact, the group has more momentum towards its mission of renovating, activating, and making a destination out of the Alger Theater than ever. On June 14, the Friends screened the first movie to play in the Alger in 25 years, Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." Three more "Brew & Views" have been held at the theater since, and the Friends have continued to raise awareness of their mission with their sixth season of Film on the Hill, an outdoor summer film series at nearby Balduck Park.
And the group recently met a $25,000 fundraising goal through Patronicity, a local online crowdfunding platform. That money, combined with matching funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, will help the Friends of the Alger create a rooftop terrace public space above the theater's storefronts along East Warren Avenue.
Yet many challenges remain to restoring the theater to an active community hub. Though the building has been abated of asbestos and its roof has been patched, the roof will eventually need to be replaced and the four storefronts on the East Warren side of the building are infested with pigeons. The theater's certificate of occupancy is temporary and covers only the lobby and concourse areas, not the main theater and stage, allowing the Friends to only screen movies at member events.
Kyle Hacias, a Friends of the Alger board member who's in charge of facilities at the theater, estimates the overall cost of renovation at between $1.25 and $1.5 million. He says that recent contributions from corporate partners like the Lear Corporation have been helpful, and he hopes that the Friends of the Alger will soon find additional sources of revenue, including grants from local and national foundations.
"Lear has been the catalyst to help us move forward and gain that momentum," says Hacias. "The corporate support plus the volunteer efforts they've given us have been invaluable. They're willing to continue to support us as we refine how we execute our vision." He notes that that could include a full development plan for the theater and storefronts in addition to that for the public terrace.
Kyle found out about the Alger and the efforts of the Friends a few years ago when researching the property for a real estate client. He quickly was drawn to the project and has been a volunteer ever since. The same was true of Jeff Wegner, a local filmmaker who noticed the Alger when driving home from a commercial shoot at a nearby car dealership. He joined the Friends after finding their website.
"One of our underlying goals is just to get more people in there so they can see how special it is," says Hacias.
Detroiters will have an opportunity to see what's happening at the theater first-hand at the Friends of the Agler's annual Halloween Party on Friday, Oct. 30, from 8 p.m. until midnight. Tickets are $10, and all proceeds will benefit Friends of the Alger Theater. Awards for the best costumes will be handed out. For more information, visit www.algertheater.org.
Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.
All photos by the author.
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.