Then & Now: Chelsea’s Sylvan Theater


The Ugly Dog Distillery. Photo by Brendan Marrin.

By Jan Bernath, CAHS

The Ugly Dog Distillery, located at 218 South Main Street, was once the Sylvan Theater that showed movies and was a vital part of entertainment in Chelsea. Built in the late 1930s by Dillion and Geraldine Wolverton, former teachers from the Grand Rapids area, the theater had 450 springed seats banked for good viewing and fine acoustics.

Before then, the Princess Theater, located in the Merkel Block, was built in 1914 and had 245 seats. There was no lobby, so customers would walk directly into the theater from the street. The Princess soon went out of business in the early 40s with the instant success of its competitor.

When the movie was about to begin at the Sylvan, green halo lights on the front walls turned to orange and red as a cue to quiet down. The Wolvertons welcomed customers and supervised their employees, including a ticket seller, a ticket taker, ushers who led late-comers to their seats with flashlights, and the popcorn maker. Films generally changed twice a week, with the exception of Gone with the Wind, which played longer and cost more than the usual ten cents for a ticket. Going to the movies was popular. A “cry room” with a large window for viewing and soundproofing was built to accommodate mothers of babies and toddlers.

Chairs from the Sylvan Theater are now used at Jack & Son Barber Shop at 105 West Middle Street. Photo courtesy of CAHS.

Al Nixon, now of Newago, can still remember when he and his brothers made the trip home to McKinley Street after watching a scary movie. He recalls that they would run fast past the Holmes House on East Middle - afraid someone would jump out over the low iron fence.

Over time, teenagers started driving into Ann Arbor to watch movies, and the theater closed in 1967. With the seats removed and the floor leveled, United Auto Workers Local 437 bought the building in 1968.

After being vacant for a while, the Ugly Dog Distillery moved its operation from its North Lake location to this downtown retail space that sells small-batch vodka, gin, bourbon, and rum. Craft cocktails can be enjoyed both indoors and out.

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