Requiem for the Main Art: Goodbye to Metro Detroit's 'cool' movie house

The closing of Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre marks the end of an era for Metro Detroit moviegoing.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It's a wrap for the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, and gone with it is a vibrant era of Metro Detroit moviegoing, a constant in the community that is suddenly no longer constant. 

The three-screen movie house, with its iconic marquee topped by big block letters that spell out M-A-I-N, specialized in independent and arthouse fare. You can catch a blockbuster anywhere. But the Main Art — which is now permanently closed after temporarily shutting its doors earlier this spring, a farewell message posted on its marquee — was home to titles outside the mainstream, smaller films that weren't reliant on explosions or talking animals or cars equally fast and furious to get their point across. 

Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre

The Main Art was not alone in the area in programming specialty films. The Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township shows similar fare, as does the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, while the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts goes even deeper and more specialized for the true cineastes among us. In recent years, Midtown's Cinema Detroit and the Film Lab in Hamtramck have built audiences for themselves by catering to indie crowds. 

But the Main was the mecca, the theater with the most character and local charm. It was the place you'd go to see cool movies, to be surrounded by cool film lovers, to feel like you were a little bit ahead of the curve. It was mainstream indie, not necessarily home to weirdo or truly out-there cinema but to hip films you had to know a little bit about movies to know about.

It was comfortable and welcoming, with a city feel in a cozy downtown; it was easy to catch a movie and head out for dinner or drinks on foot before or after showtime. Parents felt safe dropping off kids there. If you were 16 or 60 and cared about movies, it was the place to be. 

As a film fan from Metro Detroit, the Main is home to hundreds of my movie memories. It's where I saw seminal films that were the building blocks of my movie fandom, a place I could always count on to serve my moviegoing needs. Without the Main Art I probably wouldn't have become a movie critic. (I thank the Main, you can feel free to blame it.) 

Lauren Furlong, 26, left, takes a puff on her cigarette before heading into the Main Art Theatre, in Royal Oak with her girlfriend Jodi Laney, 24, both from Detroit, Friday evening May 25, 2007.

Before it became an arthouse in the 1990s, the Main was home to mainstream films and Disney movies; its first showings were Cecil B. DeMille's "North West Mounted Police" and the Martha Raye-starring "The Farmer's Daughter," according to local records. The building was built in 1941 for $37,500; its first tickets cost 20 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.  

MORE: Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre has gone dark; Birmingham 8 looks to 'pick up the slack'

My first successful trip to the Main was to see "The Usual Suspects" in summer 1995; a previous trip to see John Dahl's "The Last Seduction" the year prior was foiled when my older brother and I got lost on the way to the theater. (We were Rochester Hills kids, not the savviest with directions, and this was before even Mapquest.) I was a budding film fan and had been reading about "The Usual Suspects" in Entertainment Weekly and waiting for it to come to town. When it opened, it wasn't immediately showing at my local Star theaters, so a group of friends and I made the trek to Royal Oak.

On arrival, the old school movie house feel — it wasn't a cineplex, wasn't in a mall and had that glorious marquee above the main entrance — made it feel like I was a part of something special. The movie delivered, the Main Art delivered even more.

From then on, it was on. I remember seeing "Trainspotting" there in 1996, being blown away, and returning again to try to figure out what any of the characters were actually saying. The Madonna-starring "Evita" premiered exclusively at the Main over the holidays that year. Kenneth Branagh's 4-hour Hamlet, complete with intermission, showed there, and I made the trip down from Mount Pleasant, where I was attending college, to see it. Later, I caught films like Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," Don Roos' "The Opposite of Sex," and Todd Solondz' "Happiness" all at the Main. 

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in "Trainspotting."

In 1999, the Main was one of a small handful of theaters in North America playing "The Blair Witch Project." Lines wrapped around the building and every show — even weekday matinees — sold out. "Run Lola Run," the other movie showing at the theater at the time, was eventually reduced to two showtimes to make room for as many "Blair Witch" screenings as possible. It was a complete madhouse. 

The following summer, my brother and I — finally able to find Royal Oak on a map — saw the harrowing drug drama "Requiem for a Dream" on opening night at the theater. By the end of it I was sobbing so hard that my nose started to bleed, my tears and gushing nose mixing and creating quite a mess on my face. All in all, another successful trip to the Main. 

There were countless other films, cool midnight screenings and special events I remember taking in there, from "Kung-Fu Hustle" to "No Country for Old Men" to "Enter the Void." I saw a screening of "It Follows" which was introduced by director David Robert Mitchell, who grew up seeing films at the Main, having been raised in nearby Clawson. Royal Oak-raised Bruce Campbell did so many appearances there he was practically a part of the concession stand.

In 2010, I stumbled out of a showing of "Tree of Life" and ran into my dad in the lobby; he had just been in the same showing, which felt more than a bit cosmic, given the movie's themes about fathers and sons and the universe in general. A few years later, I got busted sneaking into a double feature there. I was in my late 30s. I was as embarrassed as the usher was.

Jennifer Connelly in "Requiem for a Dream."

In April, the theater closed its doors for what it said was going to only be only temporary period but which proved to be final. The pandemic has been especially hard on movie theaters, and while blockbuster films still demand a big-screen treatment — you're not going to watch the "Top Gun" sequel on your iPad — indie films have a tougher road going forward.

The distribution system for indies lends itself to simple On Demand viewing — you don't necessarily need to see the small character-driven film about a girl trying to make it out of her rural Ohio hometown on as big a screen as possible — and with audiences still slow to return to big screen experiences, movie houses like the Main were left especially vulnerable as we wait for normal to return. The closing is sudden, but not altogether surprising.    

The last time I remember going to the Main was for a press screening of "Parasite" in fall 2019. There were only a few of us there, but among those in attendance was Metro Times' film critic Corey Hall, who was never shy about making his opinion known after a movie ended. Hall is no longer with us; he died suddenly last year after suffering a brain aneurysm, and he most certainly would have had loud, colorful opinions about the Main Art closing. That day, he certainly wasn't keeping his take to himself. 

"Masterpiece!" he blurted aloud, as soon as the end credits began to roll. He may as well have also been talking about the Main Art.