There are many ways to measure the affection of metro Detroit film lovers for Royal Oak’s now-closed Main Art Theatre. For Jason Krzysiak, it was a matter of walking distance.
When the dedicated film fan and his wife were preparing to buy a house in Pleasant Ridge to raise their family, he figured out how long it would take to travel by foot to the Royal Oak cinema that specialized in independent films.
“It was about a 20-minute walk. … And I was like: ‘You know what? That’s an acceptable amount of time,'” he recalls
For Krzysiak, now the father of three teenagers, and other members of the grassroots Friends of the Main Art Theatre, reaching their goal of reopening the theater will take much, much longer — if it happens at all.
But they are determined to try. The nonprofit group, which recently received 501(c)(3) status, is holding its kickoff fundraiser from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Bowlero Lanes & Lounge in Royal Oak.
The goal is to raise enough money to cover the costs of the group, which formed about five months ago and is driven by the mission of preserving the Main Art as a movie theater serving the entire region.
The Main Art is at the corner of North Main Street and 11 Mile Road in downtown Royal Oak, but that’s just its physical address. Its symbolic home is in the hearts of moviegoers who consider it a part of their lives.
The 80-year-old cinema began focusing on art house content in the early 1990s and quickly became one of southeast Michigan’s essential spots for seeing indie and foreign titles.
“My husband and I always really enjoyed seeing films there. … My husband’s German, so any time there was a German film, we’d always try and go see it,” says Lisa Breuer, the current head of the Royal Oak Woman’s Club, who is organizing the bowling party. “We have a lot of good memories there.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic took a big economic toll on movie theaters. Cinemas were temporarily shut down, and the quarantining that began in mid-March 2020 hurried along the ongoing evolution toward seeing films online at platforms like Netflix and Hulu.
In April 2021, Landmark Theatres, which operated the Main Art, announced the theater was closing for the foreseeable future. Its final screenings on April 22 were of the Oscar-winning “Minari” starring Troy’s own Steven Yeun and “French Exit” starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
According to the Detroit News, Margot Gerber, vice president of of marketing and publicity for the national theater chain, said at the time: “The decision has been made to try and keep theaters closed that aren’t covering their expenses. As far as when it will reopen, I’m not exactly sure.”
Then, a few months later in June, the familiar marquee of the Main Art blasted this unexpected message: “Landlord kicked us out. It’s been a fun ride. … RIP 1941-2021.”
The message put the landlord in the spotlight. But according to Todd Fenton, Royal Oak’s deputy city manager, it was the tenant, Landmark Theatres, that terminated its lease with the landlord, A.F. Jonna Management & Development Co.
Right after the marquee message appeared, Krzysiak started noticing others on Facebook who felt as sad about the Main Art’s fate as he did. He recalls that people started gathering under the marquee to mourn the loss.
“We would show up every Wednesday, and we started talking about how important the Main Art Theatre was to us and started reminiscing. Well, those reminiscences turned into a determination to see if we could do something about it.”
Krzysiak, who says with a laugh that he wound up as president of Friends of the Main Art Theatre “primarily because of my loud speaking voice,” grew up in Macomb County watching the great blockbuster films of the 1980s and discovered classic works ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s silent films to the French New Wave of the 1960s as a student at Central Michigan University.
He firmly believes, as do the group’s other members, that the Main Art is more than a venue.
“The films and the culture that are central to this community, I think, have a strong anchor in that building. … For generations of moviegoers in this area, it has immense significance,” he says.
The group’s Facebook page has about 1,000 members.
The immediate goal for members is figuring out a path to getting films back on the screen at the Main Art. But the group has talked at its bi-weekly meetings about a larger vision that would involve creating some sort of cultural center that could double as a hub for young filmmakers and film classes.
Krzysiak says members are “adamant that no path should go unexplored,” whether it is a collaboration with a corporate sponsor, an arts organization or the city. They hope to get the ball rolling by meeting with the A.F. Jonna company and working toward “extending and creating a relationship with the property owners to say: ‘Hey this isn’t just any other property that you own. This is a cornerstone of the culture of the community that they operate and live in as well.’”
There has been brief initial contact with A.F. Jonna, according to Krzysiak. ”They have been courteous but … they’ve basically said that there is no plan for the property at this time.”
The Free Press was unable to reach A.F. Jonna for comment.
Krzysiak says members are realistic about the challenge of making their dream come true. “We definitely realize that this is an uphill battle. We recognize the fact that there have been a lot of beloved theaters across the country and North America that have shuttered their doors.”
He says the group is researching other theaters taken over by local residents and community organizations such as the Redford Theater, which is owned and operated by the Motor City Theatre Organ Society, a 501(c)(3) organization.
Royal Oak’s Fenton says Friends of the Main Art Theater would have to work with the property’s owners before any of its ideas could move forward. Fenton says that A.F. Jonna approached other possible operators, including Emagine Entertainment, and found “little to zero interest.” The Emagine Royal Oak multiplex is adjacent to the Main Art.
“I can tell you with discussing this issue with A.F. Jonna, they definitely made significant outreach to try to keep it running and try to find an operator for the theater and were unsuccessful at doing that,” says Fenton.
Nothing has been submitted to the city yet in terms of future plans for the site, he said.
“We would love to see an independent theater here if market conditions would prove that that is a viable concept right now, not only in general but for that site in particular.… I applaud the Friends of the Main Art Theatre for what they’re doing, and I wish them luck in working with A.F. Jonna,” says Fenton.
Whatever happens, Krzysiak, an electrician for Ford Motor Co. and a UAW member, says he is grateful for the friends he has made since the group formed.
“In retrospect, I probably sat through Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Hamlet’ with some of these people when it screened at the Main Art Theatre,” he says, citing one of many memorable experiences he’s had there.
“I was probably in the theater with these people the whole time. And now the really great thing is they’ve become friends, colleagues and we’re all united in this idea, this goal, of continuing to make this a special place for the metro Detroit community and expanding the idea of what the Main Art can become.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]
Friends of the Main Art fundraiser
6-9 p.m. Sun.
Bowlero Lanes & Lounge, 4209 Coolidge, Royal Oak
There will be a cash bar, raffle, music and door prizes. Tickets are $15 and $30 and $150 for a lane for up to six bowlers. Purchase in advance at friendsofmainartbowling.eventbrite.com.