Farmington's Civic Theater: Surviving crises for 80 years (and running)

You probably didn’t know, but one of the crown jewels of Farmington’s downtown district, the Civic Theater, quietly turned 80 on September 20th.

That seems like a pretty big milestone to go unnoticed. But because movie theaters in Michigan are still closed due to the pandemic – until October 9, as per the Governor’s recently announced executive order – Farmington’s beloved, city-owned art deco cinema has been limited to selling its chief concession, popcorn, three times a week (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday from 5:30 to 8 p.m.) and giving out the occasional dog treat.

"It’s nice to see people’s faces again – well, half their faces, anyway," says Civic Theater manager Scott Freeman. " … A lot of people tell us they can’t wait for us to reopen. But they’ll come and get popcorn, and some people take it home, while some just walk around town and eat it. That will change as the weather changes, I’m sure."

The dog treats, meanwhile, stem from the theater’s tradition of supplying canines, when out with their owners for a walk downtown, with a little sustenance. (This is also why, during the shutdown, the theater issued a few editions of The Ruff Times, a fictional publication featuring photos of many of its regular dog visitors.)

"The dogs started training their owners, so that when they’re approaching the theater, they’ll pull over toward the box office," says Freeman, noting that some bigger dogs stand on their hind paws to receive the treats through the slot. " … Since we’re not open as much now, some of the dog owners just pretend to still get a treat from the box office and say, 'Here you go.'"

Maintaining ties with Farmington’s small-town community in these ways is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills, of course. In recent months, Freeman has asked city administrators if the church congregation that previously used the facility for Sunday morning services could still meet, and whether one couple could rent one auditorium for themselves to celebrate a special occasion.

"The answer’s always, 'No, because you’re a theater,'" says Freeman.

Even so, Freeman noted that past investment, adaptation, and upgrades better position the Civic to weather this pandemic storm.

The Farmington Civic Theater before COVID-19"If you’re running a small mom-and-pop theater in Podunk – if you were already underwater to start with, or living month-to-month, barely making it, you probably won’t survive this," says Freeman. "But if you’ve had a good business plan, and you’ve executed it with success, and you have the support of the local community, which we do, then you can withstand more. Because of the work that was done on the building in the past, we’re now better able to keep up with maintenance, and we were able to convert to digital (in 2013), which was huge. So we were in decent shape going into this, and we’re weathering it OK. But we can’t hold on forever. Each day that ticks by, the risk increases."

Though nothing else like COVID-19 has happened during the Civic’s life span, the theater has nonetheless endured several other kinds of challenges during its 80 years in business.

So I guess you could say that, despite our local cinema’s penchant for dogs, the Civic more resembles a cat with nine lives.

Origins and Wartime

The theater originally landed in Farmington because the Civic’s first manager (and eventual owner), Edward Hohler, commuted from Walled Lake to a theater on Detroit’s west side every day, sending him right through the heart of downtown Farmington.

After convincing his employer, Associated Theatres, to build the Civic on Grand River – tearing down a two story wood building that had previously been a grocery store to do so, and hiring Fox Theatre architect Howard C. Crane to design it – Hohler helped host an opening night gala for the 700 seat, single-screen theater on September 20, 1940, complete with a formal dinner at Huck’s Redford Inn (at 7 Mile and Grand River), two large searchlights, and a special screening of The Hired Wife. (The first film screened at the Civic for the general public was the Cary Grant film, My Favorite Wife, and tickets cost a quarter for adults, a dime for kids.)

Not long thereafter, of course, the country was at war, and in 1942, rationing led to a rush on the Civic’s stock of Hershey bars whenever they arrived. The theater had ushers sell savings stamps in the auditorium after screening newsreels; shared sidewalk space with a war bond booth; and was a collection site for scrap metal donations.

"During one of these nights in 1942," wrote Edward Hohler’s son Greg, who owned the Civic from 1973-1999, in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper, "my dad was selling war bonds from the stage, and Al Ross, the proprietor of the Farmington Bakery, said he would buy a $1,000 bond if Eddie would enlist in the Marine Corps. As most of my dad’s friends and relatives had already started serving their country, he took Al up on the offer."

Television, Multiplexes, and Ticket Prices

Edward Hohler reclaimed the Civic’s reins when he returned three and a half years later, but the 1950s presented an entirely new challenge to movie theaters: television.

This new format was taking such a bite out of the movie presenter industry that Community Theatres, which then owned the Civic, decided it would shut down Farmington’s theater. Edward Hohler, with assistance from building owner Louis Rose, bought the theater outright in 1952, squeaking through a lean decade primarily by way of children’s matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. And although the ’60s saw increased attendance at movie theaters – enough that Hohler could fund some improvements (new front doors, tiling for the restrooms, a new letter sign, new sidewall drapery, new carpeting, refurbished seats) – the next threat on the horizon was the multiplex. (Locally, the Farmington Four, built in 1972 across from the Holiday Inn on 10 Mile, “ravaged” the Civic’s attendance numbers, according to Greg Hohler’s O&E account.)

"At this point Dad and I were faced with a 650 seat theater that on most nights had attendance of less than 40 people," Hohler wrote. "Even the prime weekend nights had attendance of under 100 people per show. Something dramatic had to be done to change this tide."

As Greg took over daily operations, he decided to slash the Civic’s ticket prices in half – from $2.50 to $1.25, during the run of The Stepford Wives. (The nearby multiplex was charging $3.50 per ticket.) During this shift, the box office take for Wives remained pretty much the same from one week to the next, thus indicating that the price cut had doubled attendance.

"Airport '77" debuted at the Civic Theater in 1977
Big Changes

But then the ‘80s hit, with cable TV and movies available for rental or purchase on video cassette. Though Greg Hohler purchased computerized projection equipment and a Dolby stereophonic sound system, he knew that equipment updates alone weren’t going to keep the Civic afloat, so he purchased the Civic from the building owner in order to execute a plan to make the huge single-screen theater a more reasonably sized two-screen venue.

To this end, the theater temporarily closed – for the first time in its long history – for five weeks, starting in December 1989. When the Civic reopened on February 2, 1990, it featured a 435 seat auditorium on the ground floor, and a 170 seat theater upstairs. Live entertainment (including banjo player Skip Rosenthal, owner of the then-neighboring-store Books Abound, who entertained movie audiences before shows started on Fridays and Saturday nights), corporate rentals, and weekend screenings of East Indian films became a standard part of the Civic’s offerings, but in 1999, Greg Hohler wrote in O&E, "Last year, I faced the reality that the Civic was entering a new era, an era in which it would need the infusion of major investment to make capital improvements to survive."

Hohler sold the Civic Theater to the City of Farmington in 1999, and two thorough, extensive renovations – phase one, at the end of 1999, ended up costing about $500,000, and phase two, executed a year later, cost about $250,000 – made the venue the colorful, accessible art deco marvel it is today, with 135 seat upstairs, 297 seats downstairs, and an elevator that helps patrons travel in-between. (With a price tag of about $75,000, the elevator was one of the priciest single components of the renovation.)

Current crisis

Scott Freeman, Farmington Civic Theater. Photo by David Lewinski.In recent years, under Freeman’s leadership (he became the Civic’s manager in 2011), attendance and concession sales at the Civic have soared, so it looked like nothing but blue skies – until COVID-19 hit and launched the longest (by far) shutdown in the Civic’s history.

You might think Freeman’s been taking it easy during this pause, but nothing could be further from the truth.

"I feel like I can’t take (a vacation) because I just don’t know when we might be able to start up again," Freeman said before the Governor’s latest order had been announced. "So I’ve been doing a lot of things at the theater. The first week we were closed, the employees were still there, so they did a lot of polishing and scrubbing. When they left, I started doing some big projects upstairs. … And I’ve been on my hands and knees, with knee pads on, scraping under the seats, and spraying degreaser, and I rented a tile floor cleaner machine, … and repainted all the floors. It needed it, so it’s a good time to do it."

In addition to the theater’s weekly popcorn sales, Freeman has an employee overseeing social media messaging, in an effort to stay in touch with the community. "I think it’s important to keep the theater’s image in front of people, to remind them, 'Hey, we’ll still be here when you get back.'"

A few Civic employees have moved on to other jobs, but those that remain rotate short shifts on popcorn duty to keep their customer skills sharp. And while Freeman has felt frustrated about the state’s long clampdown on movie theaters – “It boggles my mind that you can go to a gym and exhale heavily on somebody, but you can’t sit apart from other people in a movie theater,” he says – he’s not feeling particularly threatened by the pandemic-era trend of movies slated for theatrical release shifting to video-on-demand.

"A lot of things change through time," Freeman says with a shrug. "People’s preferences change. The expediency of one tool over another makes one obsolete. That’s just jlife. Some people are happy watching something on a screen this big." Freeman held up his phone. "Some people will always want to see movies on a big screen. And there will be some thinning out, for sure. Some of the larger chains may be impacted, … and a lot of the smaller theaters will be facing a difficult time and may not make it. The longer this goes, the tougher it gets."

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