| The Monroe News
Motion pictures have been shown in Monroe County for over 100 years.
The first permanent motion picture theater in Monroe County (and the second one in the state) was the “Little Gem Theater.” It was located on East Front Street in a former horse stable. It became part of the old downtown VFW building.
The former VFW building has quite a colorful history. Besides the horse stable and early theater on the ground floor, the former upper level bingo hall once had a casino in it during the 1940s.
That is, until the Michigan State Police made a surprise visit one day and confiscated the slot machines and other gambling equipment. It then became a bingo hall.
Today the building is owned by the Bica family. If you find yourself in the Palmer Room part of Beek’s Bar and Grille in downtown Monroe, realize that where you are sitting was a one-time horse stable and later it was Michigan’s second permanent movie theater.
History is all around you in downtown Monroe.
The Little Gem Theater showed only silent movies since during its time, which was the only type of movies created then. It was started and owned by John Reaper. Mr. Reaper started building a state-of-the-art (for that time) theater across the street from the Little Gem in 1911.
After several years it was completed and was quite a building for back then. Today the Reaper Theater building is owned by the Lamour family as a printing business.
Almost all traces of the former theater are now gone. After the Reaper Theater venture ended, Mr. Reaper owned and operated a theater in Petersburg for several years called The Garden Theater.
In a movie theater trade publication called “Moving Picture World” dated April 15, 1916, it is mentioned that Mr. and Mrs. Francis “Frank” Bissonette of Monroe opened a 225-seat theater at the intersection of Monroe and First Streets.
It featured a Minusa Screen, Powers 6A projection system and Mutual Services affiliation. Also mentioned in 1921 a Family Theater Company in Monroe.
That may have been the name of the Bissonette Theater; it was only three blocks from the Reaper Theater.
In the 1916 “Michigan Manufacturing and Financial Record,” it is listed that the J.R. Denniston Theater Company of Monroe filed incorporation papers with a capitalized value of $55,000, which is about $1.4 million in today’s dollars.
Other indoor theaters
The Family Theatre: The original Family Theatre opened in 1916 or 1917.
A new Family Theatre was built in 1929 directly across the street from where the Monroe Theater would be built in 1937. The theater closed in 1959, and then reopened in 1961 as the home for the Monroe Community Players. T
he theater was destroyed by fire in 1975.
Pastime Theater: Located in the Village of Ida in 1921, silent movies were shown. The exact address location is unknown.
The Electric Theater: A silent movie theater that was in Dundee in the 1920’s. Address unknown.
The Dundee Theater: In operation in the 1930s and perhaps longer. Address unknown.
The Garden Theater: Located at 33 Center St. in Petersburg, it started in 1935 and had seating for 350 people. It was owned by John Reaper at one time.
The Monroe Theater: 1,200 seats, and was located at 114 South Monroe Street.
The Monroe Theater was built by J.R. Denniston in 1937. The River Raisin Centre for the Arts (RRCA) was founded in 1988 and purchased the old theater.
The Dixie Theater: It has 480 seats and was located at 109 S Monroe Street. The Dixie Theater opened in 1930 and was part of the Denniston family of indoor theaters.
They included the Family Theater, Monroe Theater, Majestic Theater, and the Denniston Cinemas 1 & 2. Although the theater closed around 1945, the building still exists and remains in use.
The Majestic Theater: It had 600 seats and was located at 1030 E. 2nd Street, Monroe. The Majestic Theater opened in 1931 and was remodeled in 1937.
Although the theater closed around 1967, it reopened and was renamed the Majestic Art Theater and operated until 1970. In the early 1960s, admission, a soft drink and a popcorn was $1 total. The building has been demolished.
Bedford Cinema: Located at 7495 Secor Rd, Lambertville, it was originally an automated and franchised Jerry Lewis Cinema that opened in 1973.
It was Lambertville’s first known movie theater. It was sold in 1981 and became the Bedford Cinema. The theater’s operation ended in about 1987. The cinema was remodeled in 2004 for other purposes.
Denniston Cinemas: Located at 6495 N Monroe St, Monroe, it was built in 1974 on the site of the former Denniston Drive In Theater. The Denniston Cinemas closed in 2009.
It had three screens and held about 550 people.
River City Cinemas: Located at 393 N. Telegraph Road in Monroe, The River City Cinema was a two-screen, cinema. The theater was demolished sometime during the mid-2000’s to allow for construction of two restaurants.
Phoenix Theaters: Located at 2121 N. Monroe Street, Monroe, it was initially a Hoyts property until it was acquired by Regal Entertainment. In about 2007, it was re-opened by the independent Phoenix Theaters chain.
Today it is the only remaining movie theater in Monroe County.
Drive In Theaters: Besides the indoor theaters, there were a number of drive in outdoor theaters in the county with most of them being clustered together in the north Monroe area. They included the General Custer Drive In Theater in Monroe, which later became the Bel-Aire Drive In Theater.
There was also the Dixie Drive In Theater and the Denniston Drive In Theater.
Raisinville Park-In Theater: It was located at Ida-Maybee Road and M-50 on the northwest corner of the intersection.
Not much is known about the brief existence of the Park-In Theater. There were no “opening” day movie advertisements that I could find or any information about its grand opening other than it existed.
It looks like it opened in July, 1948, and closed at the end of season in 1950.
There may have been even more early Monroe County theaters, indoor and outdoor, than what is listed.
David L. Eby is the Newsletter Editor for the Monroe County Historical Society. To join the society, email [email protected]