Powers’ Theatre

PlaceA historic timeline of the Powers’ Opera House Block 1874–1979 Powers’ Opera House (1874), Powers’ Grand Opera House (1887), Powers’ Theatre (1902–44), Foto News (1944–48), Midtown Theatre (1948–1972), Civic Theatre (Under Renovation 1975–1977), Demolished (Jan 1979) From the hottest spot in town to see the latest celebrities of stage and screen to a parking lot. We’ll explore what made Powers’ a household name and earned the phrase; “Who’s Playing at Powers’?” to it’s demise and urban renewal of the late-1970s. History of Power’s Theatre wouldn’t be complete without incorporating history of the other venues of entertainment for stage and screen in Grand Rapids. Powers’ set the foundation for legitimate theatre in West Michigan.

Pearl Street looking west. Powers' Opera House 1874–75.

Pearl Street looking west. Powers’ Opera House 1874–75.

The Col. Edwin Sheldon (E. S.) Pierce Clothing Tower Block with Clock built in 1875–76, opening March 1876 has not yet been started at the corner of Pearl Street and Monroe/Canal Avenues.

Circa 1881–82 Campau Place

Circa 1881–82 Campau Place

Photo taken circa 1881–82 from second story window of William T. Powers Metropolitan Hall east of “Kent” Alley from Powers Opera House. The Col. Edwin Sheldon (E. S.) Pierce Clothing Tower Block with Clock built in 1875-76 Pearl Street and Monroe/Canal Avenues. One of the first electric street lights dons the entrance to Powers Opera House.

Campau Square with Powers Opera House left of center. Circa 1883

A snowy Campau Place with Powers Opera House Block left of center. In the winter of 1882–83 while the Houseman Block at the corner of Ottawa and Pearl Street was under construction. Photo taken from side of clock tower atop Col. E. S. Pierce Clothing Tower Block at the juncture of Pearl, Monroe and Canal Streets. Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Test Light Tower extension has been removed from Fire Bell Tower on Ottawa St sometime after June 1882.

A wintery Campau Place looking east up Pearl Street from Monroe with Powers Opera House Block left of center. In the photo above notice the two-story electric street lamp at the entrance of the Powers Opera House. It replaced an ornate three-globed gas street lamp sometime after William T. Powers installed the first electric lights in Grand Rapids 1881. It was one of the first electric street lamps to light Grand Rapids. In the early days of theatre it was customary to light the entrance with a single or double ornate lamp post long before the days of the lit marquee. The only building still recognizable is the Rood Block where Flanagan’s Irish Pub is located built in 1873. Photo circa 1883 (The Houseman Block was under construction in 1883 at the corner of Pearl and Ottawa). Prospect Hill can still be seen where the Waters Building stands today. A three-globed gas street lamp graces the entrance of the Arcade. The building immediately east of the opera house was the Metropolitan Hall, built by William T. Powers, at 57 Pearl Street in 1880. It was often requested for popular gatherings, and for dancing assemblies. It opened with a dedicatory performance of a children’s dress carnival on Thursday 30 December 1880. In later years it became one of the early bowling alleys scattered throughout downtown. By 1956 Metropolitan Hall is razed for a B.T. Parking Lot. It later becomes one of first Ellis Parking lots.

Campau Square

0000591 B1.311 Campau Square 1905 Grand Rapids, Michigan

In May 1887, after William Henry Powers, the son of William Thompson Powers, retires from managing the opera house to focus his attention on his highly successful Powers & Walker Burial Casket Company, the new manager; Mr. Fred Berger will now market the theatre as; Powers’ New Grand Opera House. By 1890 the Powers & Walker Casket company, located on the west side of the Pearl Street bridge, becomes the largest burial casket manufacturer in the United States. This is due to the local abundance of raw materials, artisans, manufacturing and the markets in Chicago.


Powers Theatre circa 1895 shown on this 1905 postcard

Powers Theatre circa 1895 shown on this 1905 postcard

It originally opened Tuesday 12 May 1874 as Powers’ Opera House, later taking on various name changes; Powers’ Grand Opera House (1887), New Powers’ Theatre (1902), Powers’ Theatre, Foto News (1944), and lastly; Midtown Theatre (1948) before its demise in 1979. It was continually reinventing itself with the latest and greatest theatrical technologies and decor. Keeping up with the latest trend. For over a hundred years it entertained Grand Rapids and West Michigan. William Thompson Powers constructed Powers’ Opera House during the years 1873-74. It is said that William T. Powers setup his offices in the Rood Block (1873), the building next to the Opera House to keep an eye on construction. The Rood Block today houses Flanagan’s Irish Pub and 616 Apartment Lofts.

Jack Loeks Foto News circa 1944-47

Jack Loeks Foto News circa 1944-47. The theatre entrance is far right. Entrance to the Arcade is left of center.

In 1944 John “Jack” Loeks leases the Powers’ and opens his first theatre renaming it Foto News. He was inspired by a theater in New York City which showed only newsreels. Ideally he wanted to show feature films but ran into opposition by the major Hollywood film producers, distributors and the established theater chains; Paramount, RKO, and the like. In 1948 Foto News is remodeled, and renamed, Midtown Theatre which showed second run and independent films made outside the established studios to get around the Hollywood monopoly. One such film which was successful for Loeks was the controversial western, “The Outlaw” starring Jane Russell. Loeks was one of the key players in the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 a lawsuit against the motion picture industry which forced the film studios to divest themselves of their movie theaters. It wasn’t until after the case is won, which benefits all independent theatre owners across the nation, that first run films are shown at Midtown Theatre. “declaration of independence as far as independent motion picture producers are concerned.” – Gunther Lessing, Walt Disney Productions “a distinct victory toward restoring free enterprise in the motion-picture industry.” – Samuel Goldwyn Powers’ Theatre History Interactive Timeline

1873 – Jan; William T. Powers begins sinking the first artesian well in Grand Rapids some 300 feet deep known to all as “Iron John” at the entrance to the Arcade.

1873 – Feb; Edwin Booth learns William T. Powers intends to build opera house and writes him a letter giving sound advice. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 may have delayed construction. William T. is busy sending much of his West Michigan lumber to Chicago to rebuild after the fire 1871–72

1873 – Construction begins designed by architect Graham of Chicago modeled after Hooley’s Opera House, Chicago
1874 – Tue 12 May; the Grand Opening Celebration with Edwin Booth’s niece; Blance DeBar of McVicker’s Theatrical Company, Chicago
1880 – William T. Powers organizes the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company. Installs electric lighting in the opera house.
1882 – Mon 11 & Tue 12 Sep; Frank L. Baum’s Maid of Arran played to fair business.
1883 – Apr – Aug; The theatre floor is lowered, adding a third balcony gallery designed by architect Col. James M. Wood of Chicago
1883 – Mon 3 Sep; 1883–84 Season Grand Opening of Power’ Opera House now on the ground floor.
1884–1891 – Sometime between these years the bay windows and mansard (French-style) roof is installed on the Powers’ Opera House Block. The mansard roof is only for looks and not an actual 5th floor. Need to confirm exactly when.
1887 – William Henry Powers retires as business manager, new manager Fred Berger introduces the renamed Powers’ Grand Opera House
1887–88 – A new entrance with carriage portico is built on the east end of Powers’ Opera House Block with lobby fronting Kent Alley.
1892 – Sat 11 Jun – Fire engulfs the opera house started by a gas fire below the stage. The business offices and residences are spared except some smoke and water damage.
1892 – Jun–Nov – The theatre interior is entirely rebuilt after the fire designed by architects; Oscar and William H. Cobb of Cobb & Son, Chicago.
1892 – 17 Nov – A new four-story main entrance with rounded bays is added to the east end of the New Powers’ Grand Opera House Block closing off what was known as Kent Alley, a sidewalk William T. Powers originally constructed in 1873 on his property as a public right of way from Pearl Street north toward Lyon Street.
1893–97 – A photo of this period shows telephone wires across poles and up over roofs. The opera house has a stick protruding from the roof line with more than a dozen telephone wires harnessed to it.
1900 – Prior to the turn of the century a leaded glass illuminated marquee/awning is added to the entrance.
1901 – Wednesday 13 November a fire kills one man from smoke inhalation and overcomes a few others. The business offices and residences are once again spared.
1902 – The fire forced it’s rebuilding. Col. James M. Wood of Chicago is architect, lessee and manager of the renamed; New Powers’ Theatre.
1902 – Alfred Fredrick Nygard, wood carver, sculptor, artisan is hired by Col. Wood to design the thousands of filigree plasterworks for the theatre interior. Gelatin molds will be used in the Powers’ Plaster and Stucco Factory to construct the Staff Plaster.
1903 – Manager and Lessee, Col. James M. Wood retires from Powers’ Theatre.
1903 – 17 July – Harry G. Sommers leasee and manager is hired to begin a 22-year lease with Powers’ Theatre on 14 Sep for the 1903–04 season.
1914 – Old facade is removed and a new brick and terracotta facade and additional office space added by architect George L. Stone. The new entrance with a less rounded terracotta front will come later.
1914 – 24 Aug; Grand Reopening with play straight from New York “Potash and Perlmutter”
1923 – Mon 23 Apr; William H. Wright’s Stock Company begins their 5–year Grand Rapids engagement at Powers’ Theatre as Broadway Players
1925 – June; Harry G. Sommers Leasees and Managers 22-year lease with Powers’ Theatre ends.
1925 – 31 May; William H. Wright’s Broadway Players leave Powers’ Theatre for Regent Theatre after more than 500 performances.
1926 – William H. Wright returns to Powers’ with his new stock company renaming it Wright Players
1928 – In March, Wright Players leave after a 5–year engagement in Grand Rapids. They arrive in Flint, Michigan for an early Spring/Summer Stock.
1932 – William H. Wright returns with his Wright Players stock company for the 1932-33 season after a 3–year absence
1937 – Major interior renovation
1938 – Wed 26 Jan – Reopens with films and considering possible Vaudeville Revival as “Grand Rapids’ Newest Theatre”.
1942 – Sep 2 – Powers’ Theatre stage repaired after fire.
1944 – Jack Loeks leases the Powers’ and opens his first theatre. He shows newsreels changing the marquee to read; FOTO NEWS.
1948 – Loeks remodels and renames it; Midtown Theatre, where first run feature films are shown. Until such time he is a key player in the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 a lawsuit against the Hollyood Studios. He wins his case which benefits all independent theatre owners across the nation.
1965 – Jack Loeks shows The Sound of Music at Midtown Theatre for a record seventy-eight weeks. It becomes the longest running and highest grossing film in Grand Rapids and the world up to that time. It was truly a “blockbuster” before the term was phrased.
1966 – Jack Loeks remodels the interior after 1890s era with new red velvet chairs from American Seating and a swag teardrop curtain from Herpolsheimer’s.
1967 – Jun 28; Grand Reopening showing the film Hawaii with Julie Andrews.
1972 – Sep 19; Midtown Theatre closes its doors for good as a movie house while Cabaret with Liza Minnelli brings down the curtain. Available for group rentals.
1974 – Up to this time it was rented out as a venue for concerts and musical artists.
1974 – Summer ; The last play to grace the stage was a traveling production “The Me Nobody Knows” with Grand Rapids own world-renowned journalist John Hockenberry, then just out of East Grand Rapids High School.
1976 – Civic Players considers buying the Powers’/Midtown Theatre for their home. They are in there renovating for nearly two years. The Powers’ Theatre Office Building is too much renovation for the budget.
1977 – Civic Players settle on swapping for the Majestic Theatre on North Division Street.
1978 – Dec 17; the demolition had begun taking about three weeks to gut the interior.
1979 – January – The wrecking ball brings down the final curtain on once great Powers Theatre.

Powers’s Opera House/Theatre Timeline. Visit often because the Powers_Theatre.PDF is continually being updated and refined. Campau Square Photo ca. 1883; Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, GRPL Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, MI. Stereocard Collection; Pearl Street Views; 76-2-65.3 ©1883 Campau Square Photo ca. 1895; 0000591 B1.311 Campau Square 1895. Photo Collections of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids, MI

Campau Square Postcard; Personal Postcard Collection of James R. Winslow, Grand Rapids, MI

28 thoughts on “Powers’ Theatre

  1. Great info! I am currently reading a book by Evan I. Schwartz about the story of how L. Frank Baum’s life experiences lead him to write the book “The Wizard of OZ.” The book states that at the age of 26 he was a playwright and an actor in upstate New York, and when one of his plays gained some success they hit the road, and on this tour they played a show at the Powers Opera House, in Grand Rapids, MI. This should have been in the year 1882 on September 11 and 12. Being a GR native born in 1981 I had never heard of this theater before, and I consider myself a bit of a GR history buff, so I had to check this out. Awesome page.

    • Thank you. I assumed it played the Powers very early on but didn’t know when. I will look that up. You probably already know he wrote some of the story while vacationing in Holland Michigan.

    • Thank you B. Beckwith.

      The dates Mon 11 & Tue 12 Sep 1882 show that Frank L. Baum’s Maid of Arran played to fair business at the Powers’ Opera House.

      Would you email me your contact information to WinslowJR@mac.com? Thank you. Jim

  2. I was a contractor for Grand Rapids Civic Theatre on the Powers/Midtown project. Civic received the theatre and the empty Powers Building (they were spearate properties with a shared wall) as a gift from the Blodgett sisters after its attempt to build on the east riverbank failed (where the GR Public Museum eventually built). I was intimately involved in mapping and evaluating the buildings for the renovation project, and while it would have been expensive, it was within reach for the Civic organization. The move to the Majestic, a movie house with inadequate technical space for theatre, was engineered by Mrs DeVos, and it was rumored among those who should know that she did it to put distance between the Civic and DeVos Hall, for competitive reasons.

    • Yes. As I recall it was going to be very difficult to attach support space to the Midtown for the Civic Theater. They needed dressing rooms, offices, prop and costume storage, a rehearsal halland a scenic shop. They had been able to break through walls to neighboring buildings in the past at both the ISIS and the Our Theatres.

      • Thank you for the comment. When I spoke with Bruce Dreher in 2010 he said the Powers Theatre Office building was broken down into odd small offices. What we both didn’t know then was that space was originally very open. The 1914 George Leland Stone renovation chopped up all the space. It would have been more space then they originally needed.

      • My crew included an architect, and to CT we submitted an architectural plan that covered renovations to the Powers Building to expand support space. With five stories and a large basement to work with, yeah, there was more square footage than the theatre ‘needed.’ That was true for the number of seats in the theatre too, it was big. But we were looking not just at rehearsal, shop and storage space; we included a new black box, street-level retail on Pearl and the alley, board and conference facilities, studios and other perks to create a real working arts center supporting all kinds of performance and static arts, events and educational curricula. As we saw it the main problem was enough parking for all that building should have become.

  3. Just looked over your timeline. The last show to play the theatre was a traveling production of “The Me Nobody Knows” in the summer of 1974. The company rehearsed local high-school and middle-school kids for the entire cast, used local musicians live on stage, and employed technicians from GR Civic Theatre. I crewed on that show. A leading player in the cast was John Hockenberry, now a respected national journalist. I still have the production poster.

    In later years when we were working on the renovation prep, my crew discovered and researched still-working stage traps built for the famed illusionist Blackstone Sr. We researched many of the shows that had played the stage, involving Sarah Bernhardt and Basil Rathbone among a great many famous names.

    My greatest regret is that we did not extensively photograph the theatre, its many impressive historic details or its extensive backstage graffiti for posterity. Up to the minute the wreckers came, we had no idea our town might betray that grand old lady so horribly.

  4. I was another of the contract crew for the (hopeful) renovation of the building. It was amazing. From the projection booth, which was the third balcony walled over, you could here someone whispering onstage – amazing acoustics. More amazing to me was the fact that the fly lofts and dressing rooms in the stage right wall were papered over with old posters. A friend did photograph them, I’ll see if I can track him down.

    I might still have a program that I dug up from under the balcony. I know I still have one of the posters for the 50th anniversary of the electric light, from the stack that were in the Consumer’s Power basement next door.

    I didn’t save any of the enormous bugs that lived in the buildings, but I do remember them!

    • Susan, Thank you for the information… Nice to connect… I’m really hoping to put a book together about the whole history of the building… I’ve delved rather deep into the newspaper on microfilm and archives at the library, museum, and Civic Theatre… I’ve learned a lot more than I imagined about the building but so much more to know… Love to see what you dig up… Jim

  5. Pingback: Blog: Powers Theatre – Grand Rapids MI | Theatre Historical Society Readerboard

  6. Hi Jim,Offtrack a bit but Col.Pierce and his brother Silas partnered with Erastus Shattuck ( Findagrave 93694350) for a time.He lived next to my grandparents on Franklin St. and I knew his daughters as a child in the 1960’s R.Howell

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  8. Great information on this theater. One correction is that J.M. Wood did not die in 1903 but rather kept designing theaters until at least 1909. He died October 4, 1923 in Washington, DC of kidney failure.

  9. My 2nd great grandfather purportedly wrote several plays which were produced Powers.

    His name was Claude Robinson Buchanan.
    22 April 1896 “The Queen’s Riddle”
    Approx 1898 “Amber Witch”
    10 May 1905 “Duchesse de Langeais” (I have two newspaper clippings about this one)
    Approx 1911 “Miss Somebody”

    I would love to find more images of Powers and if there is any source that may have programs or any other materials with any of his plays.

  10. My research also shows that our own Middleweight World Boxing Champion Stanley Ketchel fought a non-title match in 1909 at the Powers Theatre as a tune up for a major fight, and to bring a local match to Grand Rapids, his hometown, much like our latest Middleweight World Boxing Champion Floyd Mayweather did in the Van Andel Arena some years back. So to build up for the June fight in NY that year, he came back to Grand Rapids to box an exhibition match with Chicago’s Tony Caponi on Jan. 15th, 1909. It was Ketchel’s only boxing match in his hometown. He soundly beat Caponi in NY in June. I wonder if the Powers was reconfigured for that unique boxing match.

    • I doubt they could reconfigure the seating for a boxing exhibition, as the main floor was slanted toward the stage, probably just set up a ring onstage. I recall attending movies in the late 50’s and early 60’s at “The Midtown”, as it was then called, and being fascinated by the place.

      • I agree that the stage is the likeliest place for the ring, it was certainly big enough, but also note that it’s possible the orchestra floor wasn’t raked at that time. I know of several old high-stage theatres where orchestra rakes weren’t added until movies were a thing. As I recall the back of the orchestra in the Powers, at lobby level under the first balcony, worked for the screen but did not allow view to the top of the proscenium. In early days it could have stepped down to a flat floor. I don’t recall an apparent rake in the basement, but i don’t think we ever found a way to get under the rake. Demolition photos could have told the tale.

  11. Cabaret was not actually the last film to play at the Midtown. The theatre became a full-time movie-house again in 1974,with re-releases of Billy Jack and What’s Up,Doc? among the most successful engagements. For sentimental reasons,The Sound of Music returned to the theatre in December 1974. I think the film that brought down the curtain was The Way We Were.

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  13. The production of THE ME THAT NO BODY KNOWS was not a traveling production. It was all cast and performed by local students. I believe the director had been in the original company of the show in NYC. I cannot remember the names of the local women who produced, but John Hunting would know. He donated money to make the production possible. Also, it was not in the summer of 197, unless that was a revival of the original GR production. It had to have been BEFORE June of 1973. I saw it.

    • Hi Casey, it’s been ages! I’ve found my program from The Me Nobody Knows, with performance dates May 10-13 ’73. It was directed by Gerri Dean, with Neal Tate as musical director, out of New York. They were doing this in cities across the country using grant funding, and to that extent it was a traveling production. The local producers were a consortium of GVSC’s Thomas Jefferson College, Civic Theatre and the Black Free-Form Theatre; members of the production committee were TG Williamson, John Hunting, Walter Jordan, William Kooistra and Mike Birtwhistle, chaired by Rosemary Twomey. Financial sponsors were the local Junior League chapter and the Dyer-Ives Foundation.

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