A 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.
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.
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.
A wintery Campau Square 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1887–88 – A new entrance with carriage portico is built on the east end of Powers’ Opera House Block with lobby fronting Kent Alley.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1967 – Jun 28; Grand Reopening showing the film Hawaii with Julie Andrews.
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.
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