New historical museum exhibit highlights history of Berkley Theater

Woodward Talk | Published October 7, 2015

 The Berkley Theater sign and marquee still stand after the building was purchased by Rite Aid. The marquee is still used to announce city events, such as the Berkley School District homecoming.

The Berkley Theater sign and marquee still stand after the building was purchased by Rite Aid. The marquee is still used to announce city events, such as the Berkley School District homecoming.

Photo by Joshua Gordon

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BERKLEY — At the corner of 12 Mile Road and Robina Avenue in Berkley, patrons used to line up around the block to get inside the Berkley Theater and see the latest show. Even the theater’s last showing in 1993 — of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — was by invitation only.


While the large sign with the city’s name and marquee still stands, the theater is now occupied by Rite Aid, and the grand entrance is used as storage for the business.


However, those who are looking for a bit of nostalgia can head to the Berkley Historical Museum, as a new exhibit displays four chairs from the theater, a set of doors taken from the inside and a sconce to set the mood.


The doors and sconce were donated to the museum by Rite Aid, which had its own exhibit in the store for years, along with a few seats. The objects now join the set of chairs that the museum already owned.


“We were delighted when Rite Aid donated the doors and seats to us,” Berkley Historical Committee Vice Chair Jeffrey Tong said. “Many Berkley residents still speak fondly of the theater, and visitors to the museum have been very interested in our previous display. Having the doors and more seats is a welcome addition.”


When Rite Aid management took over the Berkley Theater, Berkley Historical Committee Chair Sue Richardson said, they left the marquee that has been used to promote community events for the past two decades, and they set up the display inside.


After Rite Aid decided it didn’t want the theater display any longer, Richardson said the committee was happy to take the artifacts for the museum and set up the new display, along with photographs of the theater from when it was up and running.


“For whatever reason, managment determined they no longer have a need for that display,” Richardson said.


The Berkley Theater opened in 1940 and could seat 851 people. The theater operated into the 1990s and was popular for showing movies at the bargain price of $1 until it closed.


Richardson said she moved to Berkley in 1990, just in time to attend a few shows at the theater. While the Historical Committee isn’t 100 percent sure of the reason why the family that owned the theater closed its doors, the belief is that they struggled to compete with the cineplexes that popped up around metro Detroit.


“It was an old-fashioned theater with a big screen that showed movies for $1, and people would line up around the block to get in,” she said. “People still remember the Berkley Theater, and we get visitors in the museum often who ask about more information about it. Now we are able to add to the display of chairs we had.”


The hope, Richardson said, is to use a larger space eventually to set up more seats and have them bolted down so people can sit in them, and even use the area for presentations and meetings.


While the theater is no longer operating, Richardson said residents of Berkley are happy that the grand sign and marquee remain.


“We were very pleased when Rite Aid decided to keep up the marquee, as there is always some message up there, and I never recall a time when there wasn’t some kind of announcement,” she said. “It is kind of neat, and while it is sad that the theater isn’t there anymore, it is nice to preserve that much of the history.”


The Berkley Historical Museum is open 2-4 p.m. on Sundays, except for holidays and during the city’s Berkley Days celebration. Special tours are available by appointment by contacting the museum at (248) 658-3335.

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