The Burton Theatre

Sep 16, 2009 at 12:00 am

It's really OK if you've never heard of the Burton Theatre. It doesn't technically exist. Yet. You can find it in old Chinatown.  What? You weren't aware Detroit had a Chinatown? Don't feel bad, there are only remnants left, for which we have to thank Cass Corridor preservationist and landowner Joel Landy for saving. Landy, you'll note, recently purchased the abandoned Burton International School, which sits on the corner of Peterboro Street and Cass Avenue in old Chinatown. The Burton is undergoing a transformation so quixotic it'd be a worthy of a documentary. 

Set to open doors as Detroit's newest cinema on Saturday, Oct. 3, with the 1973 Spanish classic Spirit of the Beehive, a film Burton co-founder Nathan Faustyn describes as being about "the innate power of the cinema." How fitting. 

The Burton will be the latest addition to a neighborhood that's seen a painfully slow if not exciting renaissance in recent years, one sparked by indie businesses such as Curl Up & Dye, Canine to Five, the Hub and  the Bureau of Urban Living. But this theater wasn't exactly easy to piece together. 

The Burton project belongs to young Detroitphiles Faustyn, David Allen, Jeff Else and Matt Kelson. They found each other through school ties, local bands and jobs at art-house cinemas.  

The difficult (and costly) part of starting a movie house, the guys say, is the projector. But Else found the necessary 35mm machine, which he procured while touring the country disassembling old AMC theaters. 

Once you have the projector, all that's needed is a screen, seats, popcorn and a dimly lit room and you've got yourself an actual theater. The four guys looked all over Detroit for the latter. 

The old Alger Theatre in Grosse Pointe was the group's first choice, but it was too out-of-the-way for these city kids. The next option was at the Russell Industrial, which is already home to Ed Gardiner's Motor City Movie House. Turns out the folks who run the Russell, Faustyn says, "weren't exactly keen on adding a second independently run film theater." The search continued.

By chance, Kelson met the entrepreneurial Landy who, upon learning of the moviehouse plan, jumped on board, essentially taking these guys under his wing. Landy knew exactly where this theater should be and confessed that if they could pull it off, "it'd be the realization of a lifelong dream." 

Detroit Public Schools installed the Burton school with new alarms, smoke detectors, windows, heating and cooling systems and more. Then the district decided to build a brand-new school in Corktown instead, leaving this one vacant. It sat that way for the last six years. But with Landry's know-how and the quartet's vision, plans were made, and put into action. In the last three weeks alone (by the time this goes to print) the building will have undergone a transformation that includes new flooring, a concession stand, bathrooms (the men's is rumored to have a billiards table), seats and more. For all parties involved it's the chance to make a difference in a community they love and to indulge in their shared passion for film.

The actual silver screen they found "belonged to some weird dude in Lansing," Allen says. And the seats? They're from the old State Theatre, which was upgraded when it became the Fillmore. "With the equipment we don't have and the stuff we gutted that we didn't need," Faustyn says, "we've come to realize there are collectors of practically everything out there; eBay — that's where it's at." 

Don't let the reuse, renew, recycle approach give you the wrong impression. "We're really aiming to be a top-class place," Allen says, more seriously than anything else during our conversation. "We didn't want to be another grungy, Detroit thing — you know, a small, semi-secret, smoky after-hours kind of spot," Faustyn adds. "Don't get us wrong, we're still going to show some weird shit, but we're also going to try to cater to the diverse communities you find in Detroit. We'll be showing Indian films, we'll cater to the LGBT community, the African-American, Latino and Arabic communities."

So the Burton will be similar to the Detroit Film Theatre?   

"Though they serve a niche," Allen says, "the DFT doesn't really cater to a whole lot of film appreciators. And let's be honest, the theater inside the Renaissance Center is garbage; they show three shitty movies and everyone's yelling at the screen, talking on their cell phones during them anyway." 

Already on the Burton docket are Scarface, Examine Life, the cult Japanese horror flick Husau, as well as some local films.
So what's to become of the remainder of the school? The theater will only seat 120 or so.

Landy's plan is to convert the rest into lofts, studios and office space to attract more artists and businesses to the Cass Corridor. Allen smiles. "In the end, it'll be kind of like a mini-Russell."

The Burton Theatre: 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]