Dreaming in color

A fading movie landmark gets a little help from some friends

Geoff Gowman, Helen Broughton and Conroy Jointer in front of their beloved theater.
Geoff Gowman, Helen Broughton and Conroy Jointer in front of their beloved theater.

He'd climb that tall ladder every weekend to put those black letters up high on the sign.

Over the years, that marquee on the Alger Theater announced birthdays and graduations, advertised nearby small businesses, even carried a marriage proposal once. 

Changing the message took hours of reaching upward, sometimes into wind-driven rain or face-burning sunshine, and sometimes only after shoveling the snow just to give the ladder a foothold. But Geoff Gowman, founder of the Friends of the Alger Theater, did so faithfully because the money the sign brought in was so needed.

About three decades ago, he and some other residents from the neighborhood around the theater formed their group to save the old movie house, which has been closed now nearly as long. 

 "It's something dear to my heart," says Gowman, 73. "Detroit at one time was a city of neighborhoods, and everybody kind of belonged to their own neighborhood, and each neighborhood had their own neighborhood theater. And most communities don't make any effort to save their theaters." 

The Alger, at Outer Drive and Warren on the east side, is one of the few remaining links to that era of tight, walkable communities that so many Detroit intersections once were. Some of the group's members even hope it's possible to re-create those days, when places like the local theater were gathering spots for neighborhood folks.

"I live in the community," says Karlene Trump, the group's 71-year-old secretary. "I think that this could be the anchor for this whole community improving, and I just am in love with what we want to do with this place."

The Alger opened in 1935, joining more than a hundred neighborhood theaters in the city back then. Its design was understated art deco, more functional than frilly, a place where nearby residents could walk for some entertainment.

 "Notice there's no flat parking around here," says Mark Tirikian, 45, a board member and local architect. "It was just designed that people would come by foot. They would walk from these pretty dense neighborhoods around here. There were not even parking requirements when it was built."

Attendance was down by the '70s, and even its owner's efforts to offer more than just movies, including live performances and concerts, kept the doors open only until the early '80s.

Gowman had seen the city's other old movie houses vanish, like the Vogue Theater just over on Harper, which in 1977 closed, caught fire, was torn down and replaced by a McDonald's. So he and other like-minded residents formed their group with the aim of buying the theater. But before they could raise the cash, someone else stepped in and bought it, reopening it as a B-movie venue.

This lasted barely a year until a showing of one of the Friday the 13th movies got the audience so riled up they rioted in the seats and set the stage on fire. The alarmed owner closed it for good, and it's sat empty ever since. A year later, the Friends raised enough money to buy it.

But first, they had to pay off more than $30,000 in back taxes. They had to sink cash into repairing the roof so the place wouldn't flood. They had to drain 6 feet of water out of the basement. All before putting a dime into actually restoring the interior.

Twenty-five years of emptiness takes its toll. The ceiling and walls have gaps where gravity has torn holes. The auditorium seats are covered with a fine powder from the disintegrating plaster above. A red curtain hanging high over the stage is charred from the fire that marked the theater's last night open.

But despite the years of inactivity, the building still shows hints of its subtle elegance. And it has the fortune of a still-dense neighborhood of businesses and homes.

For years the group has enthusiastically promoted it as a future community center, rather than just a worthy historic relic. Their plans include movie nights, of course, but also things like concerts and stage plays and dinner theater. Maybe even a recording studio, Trump says, excitedly.

In the meantime, they've held private jazz concerts and theater arts classes inside, public street fairs and recycling programs outside, plus benefit dinners and wine tastings, and movie nights on a hill in a nearby park to promote a theater that can't yet show its own movies. They've gotten historic designation for the building at the local, state and federal levels, too, outside confirmation of the value they place on it.

"Because you drive by every day and it's that same old theater," says member Helen Broughton, 47.  "But as soon as you come in you start seeing the possibilities."

Conroy Jointer grew up by the Alger Theater, and would see the same white-haired man faithfully tending to the sign on the empty neighborhood landmark.

The sign was the one thing that always changed on its static exterior. And the one thing that never changed was the sight of Gowman on that ladder, every single weekend. "Everybody's seen him," Jointer says. "And he's friendly to everyone."

After years of watching this ritual, Jointer felt compelled one day to offer a hand. "I said an angel just showed up," Gowman remembers. "And he's just the most dependable person in the world."

So Jointer began sharing the theater sign duties, even after he moved from the neighborhood, even coming back early once from a trip to Florida to change the marquee's message on time. The two men grew fond of each other, though as he got older and more distant from his childhood neighborhood, Jointer thought about stepping aside from the sign duties.

But one day, when Jointer wasn't there, Gowman climbed down the ladder and went back into the lobby, where a hiding mugger gave him a vicious beating to get the mere $8 in his pockets. It was the one bad incident in the group's history, an anomaly in this relatively quiet neighborhood, and Gowman brushes it off now. But Jointer was distraught.

 "Geoff's blood was all over the floor," he says. "Every time I went to do the marquee I had to step over it. That will always stay with me. I was so upset. And I couldn't go out and find out who did it. I felt helpless. So I think that's what made me stay after that happened." 

Now Jointer, a burly man no mugger would dare approach, does the sign full time. He gradually found himself drawn into the group's efforts, felt Gowman's enthusiasm rubbing off, even though he'd never really thought about the empty theater before. "I really want to see that Alger renovated," he says now.

Gowman's glad to pass along the work atop that ladder, just as he's eager to step aside in favor of the newer members who bring fresh enthusiasm to the cause, residents who think a neighborhood should offer something more than a McDonald's drive-thru in the place of once-grand theaters. He downplays his longtime role while deflecting attention to the rest of the group.

He points to people such as Broughton, who bought a home in the neighborhood, giving her a tangible stake in the theater's future. "I honestly see that if we could revive the theater it could be a cornerstone," she says. "You get one good spot going, then maybe we could revive the corridor."

They've gotten some grants here and there, some decent donations, but they're still waiting for something finally big enough to put them over the top and help reopen a grand old place. Gowman thinks they're on the verge of that.

"We're all kind of amateurs at this and we just struggle with it every day, but I think we've made significant progress," he says. "It doesn't look like it, but we have. The fact that we've stuck with it all these years and refused to give up, I think says a lot about the organization."

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