|Area||1 acre (0.40 ha)|
|Architect||Solon Spencer Beman|
|Architectural style||Neo-Colonial revival|
|Governing body||Manistee Municipal community playhouse|
|NRHP Reference #||72000640|
|Added to NRHP||January 13, 1972|
The Ramsdell Theatre is a historic playhouse and opera house in downtown Manistee, Michigan, built in 1902 - 1903 by local lawyer and philanthropist Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell. It is located at the corner of First and Maple Streets. It is a Michigan Historic Building serving as a cultural center for Western Michigan.
The exterior is a classic Colonial design of red brick with six large columns supporting the portico over the main entrance to the theatre. The Ramsdell Theatre and the adjoining assembly hall called Ramsdell Great Hall are distinct buildings from each other, although built at the same time. Solon Spencer Beman, the prominent Chicago architect and builder of Pullman, was contracted by Ramsdell to design and build the community cultural center.
The theatre features a double balcony upstairs and private viewing boxes along the main floor. Its original seating capacity was 1200, however has been cut back to 462 today for fire safety. It has four boxes, two on each side of the stage end and two in the lower balcony. The building has a hipped roof, denticulated modillion cornice, pedimented center pavilion, portico Doric columns, round arched entrance, ornamental brick panels, and dome murals. The most striking feature of the green and gold interior is the horseshoe balcony supported by numerous pillars which extend to the tin plated ceiling.
The theatre was comparable to the best opera and vaudeville houses in the country at the turn of the century when it was constructed. The stage measures 34 feet (10 m) deep and 60 feet (18 m) wide. The gilded proscenium arch is 26 feet (7.9 m) wide. The gridiron is 70 feet (21 m) above the stage while the two fly galleries are almost 30 feet (9.1 m) about the stage. In addition, there is a paint gallery that is 34 feet (10 m) above the stage floor. This enables artists to paint scenery cloths while viewing them vertically. The theatre was proclaimed "acoustically perfect" when it was built.
The interior decoration was completed by some very famous artists in their own right. The famed theatrical artist Walter Burridge, scenic artist who painted sets for The Wizard of Oz, painted the front drop curtain entitled A Grove Near Athens that is still being put in use today. Frederic Winthrop Ramsdell, Ramsdell’s son painted the two lunettes in the lobby. They were the lavish dome in the house depicting Venus riding her chariot through the heavens, surrounded by cherubs. There is a 26-foot (7.9 m) gilded proscenium besides these original murals that bedeck the dome.
Construction began on the building in 1901 after the two previous Manistee opera houses were destroyed by fire. The first Scandinavian Opera House was built by the Scandinavian Society "Nordisk Fremskridts Forening" for the purpose of debates, music, and dramatics. It was built in 1876 and burned in 1882. The Scandinavians built a new Opera House in 1883 and it also burned in 1900. The third opera house built by Ramsdell cost over $100,000 in the currency of over a century ago. This is the structure that still stands and is being used today as the Ramsdell Theatre and Hall.
The early years after preopening in the later part of 1902 with a ball by the Manistee Retail Clerk’s Union were quite impressive. It showed that the arts were accepted in this small lumber lawless town. It officially opened on September 4, 1903, with the performance of A Chinese Honeymoon.
Twenty-five more plays were performed in 1903 with a record 53 plays presented in 1904. Ramsdell leased the theatre to the Western theatre Association of Chicago in 1909 which was terminated in 1912. The plays and shows averaged around 40 each year while they were in production.
Ramsdell died in 1917. The theatre was purchased for $25,000 from his estate in 1925 by the Manistee Rotarians. It was then turned into a movie theatre house for five years that ran out of date movies. In 1936 it was leased to the Butterfield Theatre chain that ran first run movies.
In 1939, the Manistee Civic Players were formed and secured permission from the Butterfield Theatre chain for the use of the Ramsdell for rehearsals. They performed two productions each year. Their first production was The Night of January 16th which was performed on September 14, 1939. The Civic Players performed four more plays between 1939 and 1941.
The Manistee Rotarians in 1941 proposed to the City that they purchase the theatre and hall for $3000 per year. This was to go over a twelve-year period. There was a need for armory space for the Michigan State Troops. At the end of this period, the City would acquire the property and save thousands in rental costs for a facility for the troops. The Manistee Recreation Association was established in 1942 to provide for youth activities in the community. They were allowed to occupy part of the space of the hall from time to time.
During World War II the activity of the Civic Players dwindled to nothing. There were no theatrical productions for nine years. In this time there was much damage to the buildings due to lack of maintenance. In 1949, a group of women’s clubs (Lakeside Club, Junior Lakeside Club, and Business and Professional Women’s Club) formed the Civic Betterment Committee. The main objective was to restore the Ramsdell Theatre back to its original heyday.
In 1951, the Manistee Drama Festival was formed. It opened with Ruth Gordon’s Over 21. The second production was George Washington Slept Here which cast local players. By this time a number of restoration objectives were accomplished by the profits from these productions. In the second season of the Manistee Drama Festival, a person by the name of Dr. Madge Skelly was engaged to direct most of the season’s plays. In 1953 the city of Manistee purchased the theatre and hall. Dr. Skelly then completely assumed the direction of the Manistee Summer Theatre. She had this position and was responsible for the Manistee Drama Festival until 1961.
In 1953 a young black aspiring actor by the name of James Earl Jones had his beginnings here. In this year he started as a stage carpenter. In the 1955 through the 1957 summer seasons he was an actor and stage manager. His first portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello was on stage in this theatre in 1955. He has returned twice for fundraising.
The Manistee Civic Players began producing approximately four shows each year after 1963. At least one of them each year has been a musical production.
There is a Historical Marker placed at the front entrance of the theatre that reads:
|“||Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell—pioneer lawyer, state legislator and civic leader—built this theatre between 1902 and 1903. Many traveling companies played here and praised the features that made it unique among the playhouses of the era. Theatrical artist Walter Burredge painted the main curtain utilizing the theme “A Grove Near Athens.” The dome and lobby murals were the work of Thomas Ramsdell’s son Frederick. Public spirited citizens saved the landmark from demolition in the early 1920s. It was acquired by the city of Manistee in 1953. The Manistee Civic Players have helped to preserve its architecture and interior decor. The Ramsdell Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1972. Erected 1980. Marker Number L0124.||”|
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09.
- The Ramsdell Theatre and Hall historical synopsis
- Authentically Manistee has the finest collection of historical buildings of Michigan, page 1
- Royce, Julie Albrecht , Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast, p. 416 - 417, Dog Ear Publishing (2007), ISBN 1-59858-321-2
- Ramsdell Theatre: Past, Present & Future
- Dufresne, Jim, Michigan off the Beaten Path - A Guide To Unique Places, The Globe Pequot Press (1988), p. 67-68, ISBN 0-87106-791-9
- Manistee History - Spirit of the woods
- THE HISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE