Comments from graymatters

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graymatters commented about Ryan Theatre exterior on Aug 11, 2022 at 8:04 am

The archives of my grandfather (Al Johnson, whose Johnson Constructon Company built the Ryan) include a copy of this promotional photo. The back is stamped with: “Photography by Russ Milligan, Star Commercial Photo Co., 1112 Charlevoix Bldg, Detroit 26, Mich WO. 1-9531,” along with a print number. The back is also date stamped DEC 17 1949. -Andy Gray

graymatters commented about Ryan Theatre on Aug 11, 2022 at 8:03 am

The archives of my grandfather (Al Johnson, whose Johnson Constructon Company built the Ryan) include a copy of this promotional photo. The back is stamped with: “Photography by Russ Milligan, Star Commercial Photo Co., 1112 Charlevoix Bldg, Detroit 26, Mich WO. 1-9531,” along with a print number. The back is also date stamped DEC 17 1949. -Andy Gray

graymatters commented about Roxy Theater on Jul 18, 2022 at 5:57 pm

I just located and uploaded a 1940 image of the Roxy Theatre, taken by my grandfather Al Johnson, whose Johnson Construction Co. remodeled the theater. Previously we didn’t know which year Al Johnson completed the job, but based on the theater history and the 1939 film titles shown in the only other photo known to exist of the theater when it was called the Roxy, my educated guess is that the remodel was completed in 1939.

Although Al left behind no color Kodachrome slides of the theater, as he did for most of his jobs, this black and white photo provides additional documentation that this was the Roxy Theatre that my uncle listed as one of the Johnson projects. -Andy Gray

graymatters commented about 1937 photo Oakdale Theatre - Al Johnson on Jul 16, 2022 at 1:45 pm

Comparing this earlier (apparently 1937) image of the Oakdale Theatre with the later images, it’s clear that the more ornate marquee in this image was later replaced by a more streamlined marquee more typical of the 1940s. I’m assuming that the 1947 Johnson project included this marquee replacement. -Andy Gray

graymatters commented about Pontiac Drive-In on Jul 15, 2022 at 8:26 am

Michael, I’m researching my grandfather’s (Johnson Construction Company’s) early 1950’s Michigan drive-in jobs. My uncle listed a “Dixie” drive-in that Al Johnson built in “Waterford,” and I’m wondering if this is the one he referred to. Unfortunately, Al left no Kodachrome slides behind of this job. Online views of the screen tower closely resemble the towers that Al’s men built on several of his other drive-in jobs.

If you still have access to the 1950 Boxoffice article, I’d be curious to learn more about what it might say - if anything - about the builder of the Pontiac Drive-in.

Feel free to email me with any info:
-Andy Gray

graymatters commented about Coldwater Drive-In on Jul 2, 2022 at 2:38 pm

I just uploaded seven photos of the Coldwater Drive-in and worksite, all of which were taken by my grandfather Albert S. (Al) Johnson in 1949. His Johnson Construction Company built several Michigan drive-ins between 1950 and 1953. Our family records don’t include the Coldwater Drive-in so it’s not clear whether this was a Johnson project. It’s certainly possible that this was Al Johnson’s first drive-in project. If not, then perhaps he took the photos as research before undertaking his drive-in projects.

The back of each photo is inscribed “49 Coldwater.” These photos were found (in June 2022) in Albert S. Johnson Jr’s papers by his son Albert s. Johson III.

Andy Gray

graymatters commented about Star Theater on May 22, 2021 at 7:19 am

Last night I had a conversation with Josh Mitoska, who has owned the Star Theatre building for twenty-one years. He indicated that he is cleaning out the building in preparation to sell it. He also provided a couple of images, which you can see by opening the Photos tab.

The building still retains its signage, and one can only hope that whichever entity purchases the building will find a way to preserve the building - if not actually reopen it in some capacity as a movie venue.

graymatters commented about Alamo Theatre on May 12, 2021 at 6:42 am

John Lauter, a member of the “Historic Detroit Area Architecture” Facebook page, provided an excerpt from a Detroit theater publication that shows a more complete history of the theater: the “Opera house, nickel show, and palace: An illustrated inventory of theater buildings in the Detroit area” by Andrew Craig Morrison shows that the theater operated as the Theatorium between 1912 and 1936; renamed and operated as the Bagley Theatre from 1937 to 1957; and finally operated as the Alamo Theatre from 1958 to 1964. I’ll post a copy of that excerpt in the Photos section of this site.

Members also pointed out that Bagley Street was originally called Baker Street.

graymatters commented about Alamo Theatre on May 10, 2021 at 2:24 pm

Susan Carol posted an image from the former Bagley Theatre on the “Historic Detroit Area Architecture” Facebook page with this explanation: “By the late 50’s, the name [of the Bagley Theatre] was changed to the Alamo Theater and was the only theater in town featuring Spanish language movies.” Please click on the “Photos” tab to view the image.

graymatters commented about Bad Axe Theatre on Apr 23, 2021 at 3:05 pm

My grandfather Albert S. “Al” Johnson’s theater job slides include one shot taken in September 1948. It shows four red art moderne style entrance doors with half-octagonal glass. Al was said to have held a patent on these “Johnson doors” and they were a feature of several of his Michigan theater jobs. These doors, or identical replacements, are seen in a 2020 view of the theater.

My uncle (Albert S. Johnson Jr.) compiled a list of Johnson Construction Co. theater projects and it shows two Bad Axe Theatre remodeling projects - in 1935 and 1947.

All but one of Michigan Schulte Circuit theaters listed in Ken C McIntyre’s 2007 post were built or remodeled by my grandfather’s company: the Main in Coldwater, the Oakdale in Hazel Park, the Howell in Howell, the Mariner in Marine City, the Romeo in Romeo, the Strand in Tecumseh and the Ryan in Warren. he built or remodeled a total of sixty-four Michigan theaters and drive-ins between the 1930s and 1950s.

graymatters commented about Starlite Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 12:42 pm

I’ve uploaded several Kodachrome images taken during the construction of Bay City’s Starlight Drive-In. This was the fourth Michigan drive-in built by my grandfather Al Johnson, and he shot these slides in June 1950. The drive-in opened later that month.

My dad (Doug Gray) and his dad (Robie Gray) worked on and superintended several of these projects for Johnson Construction Co. One image shows Doug, Al’s son-in-law, standing at the base of the screen tower as it was being built.

The next three slides show workers connecting the vertical trusses to each other with horizontal timbers, and attaching plywood to the outside of the completed tower frame. Perhaps some drive-in towers were built with prefabricated wooden trusses, but all of the drive-ins built by my grandfather for which we have slides of the tower construction were site-built out of timber.

It’s interesting to note in one of the images that a scaffold at least eleven levels high has been erected on the screen side of the tower, and no apparent safety lines are used by any of the workers.

Although Al’s slides don’t show any views of the finishing process, Ron Gross, administrator of the Michigan Facebook page, says that asbestos panels typically made up the outermost layer on towers of this era.

graymatters commented about Tawas Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 12:40 pm

The Tawas Drive-In was the seventh known Michigan drive-in project completed by my grandfather Albert S. “Al” Johnson’s Johnson Construction Company. The drive-in was located at 2005 N. US-23 in East Tawas, Michigan. I’ve uploaded scanned copies of all nine of Al’s Kodachrome slides.

His slides include one image showing construction of the concession/projection building with what could be a flatbed well-drilling rig in front of it. This image was taken in March 1952.

The remaining slides were shot in July 1952. These show the project nearing its completion. Vertical tongue-and-groove knotty pine sheathes the concession/projection building doors and also covers the ticket booth.

A Jeep, used to set the precast speaker stands, is shown in one slide. A swing set can be seen in front of the screen. Child play areas, sometimes with benches or chairs from which their parents could watch over their children, were a common feature of drive-ins of the era.

Two images show the drive-in on opening night. The marquee reads: “Gala Opening Tonight ‘Thief of Bagdad’ and Judy Canova in ‘Hit the Hay’ Souvenirs to first 500 cars.”

More recent photos of the drive-in at the website show that the screen had been widened at some point. The site also states that the drive-in was closed after the 1991 season.

graymatters commented about Maple City Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 12:39 pm

My grandfather Al Johnson owned the Johnson Construction Company and built dozens of Michigan theaters and drive-ins. According to family records, the Maple City Drive-In in Charlotte was his sixth drive-in job. Al took several color 35mm slides in the fall of 1952 which I’ve uploaded to this webpage.

These images provide a rare look into the early phases of a drive-in project: site clearing, layout, applying tar to the lower blockwork of the concession/projection building, constructing the foundation for the tower, and tower framing and assembly.

One slide shows car speaker posts with precast concrete bases. These later will be interconnected and set in place, then the concrete bases will be covered with gravel prior to the final grading of the parking area.

The same slide shows several timbers soaking in drums of creosote for protection against rot. Some of the timbers piled in the back will be cut to length and bolted together with long wooden gussets (on other projects steel gussets were used) to form vertical trusses. These will provide the primary structure of the tower.

A series of slides shows the workers raising one of these tower trusses into place using ropes, block and tackle. Once in place, these vertical members will be connected to adjacent trusses with horizontal timbers to form a rigid framework.

Though not shown in these slides, the final step of the tower construction involved sheathing the whole tower frame with plywood, applying one or more coats of paint, and then covering the whole tower with a final layer of asbestos panels.

The site provides this history: “The Maple City Drive-In opened in June of 1953 and closed around 1990. This single screen drive-in had a capacity for 500 cars.” The site also reveals that, as of 2013, the projection/concession building and a very damaged marquee were all that remained on the site.

The Maple City Drive-In was located at 2812 S. Cochran Avenue. I’ve been unable to find any contemporary photos of the completed drive-in. A current Google Maps view shows part of the parking area and the remains of the concession/projection building in the rear of the site.

graymatters commented about Burnside Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 11:56 am

The Burnside Drive-In was located at the intersection of M53 and M90 (5950 Van Dyke Road) in the unincorporated community of Burnside, about eight miles north of Imlay City, Michigan. My maternal grandfather’s Johnson Construction Company built the drive-in in 1951. This was the fifth known Michigan drive-in job of the company.

Three of A.S. “Al” Johnson’s slide images below were taken in January 1951. Two show the tower sheathing being painted, and the third is a picture of my paternal grandfather Robie Gray. He and my dad, Doug Gray, worked on several Johnson drive-in and conventional theater projects throughout Michigan.

The remaining four slides show the drive-in the day of its opening in June 1951. The marquee shows the “Mich. Premier of Country Parson with Peggy Stewart”- a film that (curiously) was released in 1915.

The drive-in, with its distinctive pheasant rising from a farm field mural, was a landmark for travelers for several years. The drive-in has since been demolished.

graymatters commented about Marysville Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 10:06 am

The Marysville Drive-In is the third Michigan drive-in job that family records confirm was built by my grandfather Albert S. “Al” Johnson’s Johnson Construction Company.

Al shot several color slides of this job showing the tower trusses being raised and several views of the screen, the projection/concession building, fencing and landscaping, ticket booth, children’s play area and other elements. All slides were taken between August and September 1950, with the latter slides showing the drive-in on opening night. I’ve uploaded them to this webpage.

The first two are among the few in his collection that show drive-in tower framing being constructed onsite by bolting timbers together and then raising each upright into position by hand using ropes, and block and tackle (vs. prefabricated trusses or steel framing placed by a crane).

One image is a shot of the beautiful “Marysville Drive-In” tower and the marquee, which says “Grand Opening Tonight with the ‘Sundowners’ Also ‘Blue Grass of Kentucky.’ ” I’ll bet the neon-lit tower was visible at nighttime from the Saint Clair river just over a mile to the east.

A strip mall currently occupies the site of this demolished drive-in.

graymatters commented about Caro Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 9:38 am

The second Michigan drive-in theater built by my grandfather’s Johnson Construction Company was the Caro Drive-In in Caro, Michigan. Al Johnson’s three slides show the drive-in during the final phase of construction in May 1950.

The two images of the screen tower appear similar to other Johnson drive-in towers that were constructed of timbers cut and assembled onsite, then covered with a sheathing material - most likely asbestos panels.

In the second image you can see the precast speaker posts which have been set in place and await final grading, which will cover the concrete bases. The third image shows the ticket office ready for opening night.

The drive-in has been demolished.

graymatters commented about Skytop Drive-In on Apr 21, 2021 at 9:29 am

The Sky Top was located at 1892 W. Monroe Road in St. Louis, Michigan. My grandfather Albert S. “Al' Johnson, owner of the Johnson Construction Company that built the drive-in, shot three Kodachrome slides in June 1949 just before the drive-in opened. I’ve uploaded these images to this webpage.

In the first image, a unique capped polished metal square tower held the marquee and a small neon “Sky-Top” sign. This tower was later replaced by a different marquee and signage. The marquee reads “Opening Tuesday June 21 ‘Silver River’ with Errol Flynn.”

In another image, the movie screen has visible exterior supports behind it. This is unlike the other Johnson drive-ins at which the screen tower, including all supports, was totally encased and was a key architectural element of the overall site.

The site says that “the Sky Top Drive-In was closed in 1986 after extensive flooding destroyed the building’s foundations.”

graymatters commented about Romeo Theatre on Apr 21, 2021 at 7:34 am

My uncle A.S. Johnson Jr.’s Johnson Construction Company theater projects list includes the Romeo Theatre job in Romeo, Michigan, but the year of the project is not noted.

I’ve uploaded a slide that Al Johnson Sr. shot in August 1948. The 1948 film “Winter Meeting” starring Bette Davis and James Davis, is shown on the marquee. The image shows a fairly new building in “art moderne” style with a beautiful two-tone blue color scheme. The Romeo Theatre is one of a handful of Johnson projects that deviated from his trademark standard cream and red colors.

A used car lot is seen to the left of the theater, and an automotive garage to the right.
Unfortunately, the Romeo Theatre building has since been razed and replaced by a one-story building housing the People Driven Credit Union.

graymatters commented about Juliet Theatre on Apr 21, 2021 at 7:26 am

My grandfather’s Johnson Construction Company remodeled the Juliet Theatre in Romeo at least once. I suspect he remodeled it twice. According to my uncle’s theater project list, the company remodeled the Juliet Theatre into an A&P store in 1951. A caption on a September 1949 Juliet Theatre photo on a Romeo History Facebook page says that the theater closed because the Romeo Theatre (another Johnson project) a block south had recently opened. The marquee of the Juliet reads “FOR RENT WILL REMODEL.” I guess my grandfather got the remodel job! Among Al’s collection is a slide that I’ve uploaded dated August 1948 showing the outside of the Juliet Theatre. This shows marquee and door styles typical of projects that he completed in the mid 1930s to early 1940s. The cream and red colored porcelain enamel tiles are identical to most of the Johnson theaters built or remodeled during that era. This leads me to think that my grandfather remodeled the Juliet Theatre during that period - possibly just updating the outside of the theater - before converting it into a grocery store in 1951. Google Maps shows the Yorokobi Sushi Restaurant in the original building today (April 2021).

graymatters commented about RIC Theatre on Apr 21, 2021 at 7:11 am

The RIC Theatre was the second Johnson Construction Company project in Richmond, Michigan. My grandfather Al Johnson took two Kodachrome slides of the RIC Theatre and labeled them: “RIC - BLDG” and “RIC - INT. OPENING” which I’ve uploaded to this webpage.

The first slide, showing a new cinder block building under construction with wooden rafters, is dated August 1948. The second slide (the interior view on opening night), is dated January 1949. It shows my paternal grandfather Robie Gray, who worked on several theater and drive-in jobs for Al Johnson, standing in work clothes between two suited gentlemen. The date that the slide was developed suggests that the RIC opened sometime between December 1948 and January 1949.

The man on the left in this image was the theater owner Jack Howard. Richmond residents posting on the “Memories of Growing Up in Richmond!!” Facebook page have identified the gentleman on the right as Eddie Wosnakowski (sp?), who was the projectionist. The photos of the RIC Theatre exterior, movie ad and ticket were uploaded from this Facebook page.
The Exterior image of the RIC Theatre, taken on or about 1950, shows the theatre with two pairs of my grandfather’s patented half-moon glass “Johnson doors.” The same page indicates that the theatre showed its last film in late 1980, and that the building was used afterwards to host special events.

A representative of Maniaci’s Banquet Center, which is the business currently in the building, told me that “…there is really only one room that has never been touched in the building. It’s the projection room upstairs at the hall…same floor and walls.” I’ve uploaded a current (March 2021) Google Maps street view of Maniaci’s.

graymatters commented about Majestic Theatre on Apr 21, 2021 at 6:48 am

A street view of the Majestic Theatre at 69080 Main Street is shown in slide that Al Johnson Sr. shot in May 1948. It shows a small older building with a very modest marquee and exterior. The overall style is similar to the jobs that Johnson Construction Company completed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The slide was labeled by my grandfather as “Majestic Richmond.”

Because our family’s research into our grandfather’s theater jobs is incomplete, we can only assume that - because Al shot the Kodachrome slide and the exterior resembles other Johnson theater projects - this too was one of his jobs.

The CinemaTour website, which is the only site that I’ve found with a reference to the Majestic, simply lists the “Majestic Theatre” in “Richmond, MI” and the fact that it’s closed:

Commentators on the “Memories of Growing Up in Richmond!!” Facebook page say that, after the Majestic Theatre closed, the building housed Richmond Automotive, and then a business called Laser Mark-It. That business is still open in the original theater building in March 2021.

graymatters commented about Capitol Theatre on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:19 pm

The Capitol Theatre on State Road in Millington, was one of at least six theaters with that name in Michigan.

My grandfather’s Johnson Construction Company remodeled the Capitol in 1939 or 1940. For our family, the most notable aspect of the Capitol Theatre project is that it was where our parents first met each other. Dad was working on the theater when Al Johnson took his two daughters with him on a jobsite visit. The rest, you could say, is history.

Al Johnson’s November 1948 color slide shows that an addition, most likely the lobby and concession area, has been built onto the front of the older wood-framed structure. It’s not known what additional interior work might have been done to the opera hall/theater at that time.

Photos on the website show the theater prior to this addition. The “Millington - Arbela Historical Society Museum” in Millington has some of the old theater seats in the museum as well as old pictures.

graymatters commented about Hudson Theatre (New) on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:08 pm

The “new” Hudson Theatre was built at 116 S. Market Street, which was around the corner from the “old” theater of the same name. Al Johnson shot two color slides during construction of the “new” venue in July 1948, and four more during opening week in March 1949. I’ve uploaded all of these images to this website.

In the two exterior shots, a brick building can be seen next to the new theatre with an “Authorized Buick Service” sign. One slide (which my grandfather labeled “the Morgans”) shows a couple standing under the marquee of the new theater while a worker touches up the front wall in the background. I’m guessing that the Morgans owned the theatre.

The marquee in another image announces that the theater’s grand opening was scheduled on “Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday March 29 - 31” (in 1949) with the film “The Sun Comes Up.” The marquees of both the old and new theaters say “Hudson” in the 1948 and ‘49 slides. Two interior shots show a pastel color scheme and elaborately styled murals similar to several other Johnson theater projects of the era. Al Johnson’s widow Ann told her grandson Scott Johnson that, to gin up interest before the “new” Hudson Theatre opened in 1949, the owners set up a temporary screen and chairs in the street in front of the theater and showed films to residents of the town. I haven’t found any online information about the “new” Hudson Theatre. The Hudson Lanes bowling alley now occupies the former new Hudson Theatre building. I’ve uploaded a Google Maps image showing a current (March 2021) view of the building.

graymatters commented about Hudson Theatre (Old) on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:46 pm

Our family’s Johnson Construction Company theater jobs list includes a “Hudson Theatre” project in 1936. One of my grandfather Al Johnson’s theater project slides shows a street view of the “old” Hudson Theatre in the heart of the downtown. He shot this slide in July 1948.

A Google Maps search indicates that the “old” Hudson Theatre stood at 214 W. Main Street. That location currently (April 2021) appears to be an outdoor dining area for the Rumors microbrewery/restaurant at 212 W. Main Street.

graymatters commented about Drayton Theatre on Apr 20, 2021 at 3:46 pm

The color slide that Al shot in September 1948 (seven years after his completed project), shows an “art moderne” style incorporating tan brickwork and a cream and red color scheme typical of many of the Johnson projects. The porcelain enamel tiles in this color scheme cover the first ten feet or so of the theater front. Two 1948 movies are listed on the marquee: “Jinx Money” (a Bowery Boys film) and “Carson City Raiders” (a Western).

There’s little online information available about this theater, other than that it was located “on Dixie Highway between Sashabaw and the short little street, Monroe.”