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creative:impact - Frank Uhle has screened it all

Frank Uhle at the WEMU studio with his book, "Cinema Ann Arbor".
Deb Polich
Creative Washtenaw
Frank Uhle at the WEMU studio with his book, "Cinema Ann Arbor".

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich


Frank Uhle
Cinema Ann Arbor
Frank Uhle

Cultural historian FRANK UHLE writes about the fascinating people and stories behind beloved film and music projects, with an emphasis on his adopted hometown of Ann Arbor.

A projectionist since the early 1980s, Uhle’s devotion to film was catalyzed when he joined one of the University of Michigan’s student film societies as an undergraduate. Membership in Cinema II provided a rigorous education in the movies and a warm, robust, and lasting community of fellow film lovers whose stories take shape across the pages of Cinema Ann Arbor.

Uhle has shown films for various campus film societies, the University Drive-In, the Michigan and State theaters, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and along the way made experimental 8 mm films, helped archive the papers of Orson Welles, and served as proofreader for Psychotronic Video magazine.

He’s also the host of a long-running radio program on WCBN that highlights Michigan music, and a frequent contributor to Pulp, Ugly Things, and other publications where he writes about film, music, business, history, and culture.


"Cinema Ann Arbor: How Campus Rebels Forged a Singular Film Culture" by Frank Uhle
Cinema Ann Arbor
"Cinema Ann Arbor: How Campus Rebels Forged a Singular Film Culture" by Frank Uhle

The room goes silent, and everyone is transported to a communal sensory experience that often lasts far beyond the time on screen. Before streaming subscriptions, or even the era of VHS tapes, gathering with people to view films was a mainstay of cultural life. Nowhere was this more evident than in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the public university and its community prominently put movie-watching and movie-making at the center of artistic and intellectual activity.

Delving into almost one hundred years of rarely glimpsed history, Frank Uhle melds interviews with eighty key people, deep archival research, and over four hundred mostly unseen images into a vivid account of just how the history of motion pictures and the history of Ann Arbor—and the University of Michigan—are intertwined.

Told with the urgency and exquisite detail only available to an active, decades-long participant in Ann Arbor’s film culture, Cinema Ann Arbor uncovers unexpected and essential stories of the university’s film societies and the campus rebels who ran them. Uhle unearths firsthand accounts of arrests, protests, ripoffs, bomb threats, and other behind-the-scenes drama. He introduces readers to unforgettable people—nonconformists and artists and nerds from the Weather Underground to the Velvet Underground—who composed the magnificence of Ann Arbor’s twentieth-century film scene.

Interviewees including filmmaker Ken Burns, Oscar-nominated American Hustle editor Jay Cassidy, and Boyhood producer John Sloss provide insights into how this midwestern college town developed an underground art film community to rival any in the country. Before cable television or the internet, these student-run groups provided critical access to alternative viewpoints and cultures during some of the most turbulent decades of the past century and were often at the forefront of seismic cultural shifts. Cinema Ann Arbor reveals the authentic human struggles and triumphs of the college town revolutionaries who rolled movie cameras, occupied folding theater seats, and threaded reels in shadowy projection booths. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman says, “Frank Uhle has captured the moment when cinema became, for a new generation, a kind of religion, with its own rituals and sacred texts and a spirit of exploratory mystery that has all but vanished from the culture.”


Cinema Ann Arbor

About Cinema Ann Arbor

Cinema Ann Arbor Tour Dates

Fifth Avenue Press

University of Michigan Press


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to meet the artists and creatives who choose to live and work in Washtenaw County and in character and impacting our local quality of life, place and economy every day. Flickering lights and the clickety-clack of 24 frames of film per second running through a projector keep projectionist Frank Uhle company. Inside the booth, high above the audience, he has been witness to Ann Arbor's cinema culture since the 1980s. Oh, the stories Frank can tell. And he will...in his new book, Cinema Ann Arbor, due out in June. He's here to give us a sneak preview. Frank, welcome to creative:impact.

Frank Uhle: Thanks, Deb.

Deb Polich: So first, congratulations on the book.

Frank Uhle: Thank you.

Deb Polich: I can't help but wonder if this were a movie, which you've seen bazillions of, what would the trailers say for Cinema Ann Arbor?

Frank Uhle: Yeah. You got me on the spot now. I think it would be...it would start with a lot of people back in the thirties, kind of in quaint clothes, sort of saying "Let's have a cinema club." And then, they do like kind of a monthly kind of cinema club. And then, by the sixties and seventies, their hair grows out, their clothes get less.

Deb Polich: They grow beards.

Frank Uhle: And they have like less bodily hygiene. And they start showing freaky movies all over campus. And, meanwhile, there's people making freaky movies all over the world, and you can't see them on a TV. You can't see them in the most mainstream theaters. So, it was left to the cinema clubs, the film societies, to bring those movies to places, like Ann Arbor, that had this kind of thriving film culture.

An audience awaits the Velvet Underground performance at the 1966 Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Buster Simpson
An audience awaits the Velvet Underground performance at the 1966 Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Deb Polich: Okay, I'm going to watch the film when it comes out. So, we'll get back to the book in a second.

Frank Uhle: Yeah.

Deb Polich: But tell us about the Frank Uhle that first stepped into a projection booth or screened his first film on a projector. Who were you then?

Frank Uhle: Who was I? Well, I was a undergraduate at the U of M Art School, and I had made a few films and super eight films in high school, as many people did at that time, bought a little portable camera at the Sears store and little cartridges. And my friends and I would make, like, a fake monster movie in our backyard. And I made it a little experimental. But, anyhow, I found that there were these film societies and you could show movies and you could pick whatever weird movie you wanted to watch and program it. Maybe four people would show up, but it was just this kind of out-of-campus, out-of-classroom event.

Deb Polich: And did you expect that to lead to a career?

Frank Uhle: I didn't, which is interesting. And it sort of ended up, you know, when you go to art school, you don't necessarily have like that job waiting out there. So, you get a job, oh, maybe a movie projectionist. That'll be kind of fun. And pretty soon, you're like, "Oh, I guess I'm a movie projectionist 10, 20 years later." But that's how it works out.

Cameraman Paul Meagher shoots a 1951 version of Franz Kafka’s "Metamorphosis".
William Hampton IV
Cameraman Paul Meagher shoots a 1951 version of Franz Kafka’s "Metamorphosis".

Deb Polich: And you've worked at the university, you've done these cinema clubs, you worked at the Michigan Theater, which is where we met back in the day.

Frank Uhle: Exactly.

Deb Polich: And have been doing this for the film festivals and a lot of other things ever since. So, you are the guy.

Frank Uhle: I'm one of the guys. And ladies.

Projectionist Anne Moray threads a 35mm film in 1988.
Gregory Fox
Projectionist Anne Moray threads a 35mm film in 1988.

Deb Polich: And ladies, thank you.

Frank Uhle: Of course.

Deb Polich: Thank you.

Deb Polich: Yeah. No, it's been fun. And, again, I like movies, so it's been like, "Oh, I'm helping to show movies." And we have the Ann Arbor Film Festival coming up, which is always an annual highlight for me.

Deb Polich: Absolutely. So, I was reminded when I was preparing for the show about a book I read once about a maid, frankly, and she talked about how she was always present, but nobody noticed her. And so, she got the view of the world in a different way. A projectionist is kind of the same thing. You were there for all of this, but nobody, I mean, very few people were probably paying attention except if the film broke or the sun went down.

Frank Uhle: That's a good point.

Deb Polich: Yeah. So, what did you see? I mean, don't tell me all 7000 pages of the book...or words, I should say.

Frank Uhle: No one's gonna read it. It's really 344 pages.

Deb Polich: There you go.

Frank Uhle: Yeah. There's so many stories in this book. And, again, they weren't just things I saw. I interviewed 80 people. I dug back into the history, back into the thirties. I went to the archives. And there were so many untold stories that these people gave me that were just stunning, that went back, especially in the sixties and seventies. There was a lot of ferment, shall we say.

Deb Polich: Ferment and fermentation.

Frank Uhle: I got that one messed up.

Deb Polich: Yeah. No, no, you did it exactly. It just took me to another place. So, the personalities, the culture, and its evolution and art form is the art form over time. When did you realize that you had something that could become a book?

Frank Uhle: Well, it's interesting. I'll try to condense it, but the U of M bicentennial was in 2017, and I decided no one had seemingly remember these. I would talk to people and they'd say, "What's Cinema Guild? What's that?" But people from our generation, that was like as much as UMS. I mean, it was just everywhere.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Frank Uhle: You go see movies seven days a week.

Deb Polich: It was a culture.

Frank Uhle: It was a completely, like, center of the culture on campus and in the community. And I thought I'd write this thing up for the bicentennial. And then, it just sort of got deeper and deeper. And I ended up saying, "Well, I got to do the film festival, and there's a whole bunch of these weird filmmakers." So, it turned into much, much longer. And it took much longer.

Deb Polich: So, this is 89 one WEMU's creative:impact. And I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Frank Uhle, whose soon-to-be-published book, "Cinema Ann Arbor," gives his eyewitness account of his many years working as a projectionist in the film culture of this community. So, we kind of touched on what film culture was like then. How would you say it is now?

Frank Uhle: Well, you know, it's obviously changed so much because people have access to streaming content. And people can watch the movie whenever and pause it and everything like that. So, going out to the theater to see maybe an old movie or an art film or something isn't as appealing because you can just do it on your own time. And so, you know, it's kind of gotten diffused. But, you know, places like the Michigan Theater, places like the film festival, bring us content you can't see anywhere else. And those are still a vital part of our film culture. But it's, you know, in the seventies, sixties, there were no other way to see these films, so you had to go. So, it was more like going to a concert than it was going to now picking an entertainment option.

Deb Polich: Right. There are those of us still that love being in that venue with all those people we don't know, which is both an interactive, but solo experience too. It's so interesting.

Frank Uhle: Yeah, it makes the film feel more like an event, and it makes you clue into the film. I certainly advocate for going to see films in person.

Deb Polich: So, as you researched and did interviews for this book, did you discover or find anything that was a real surprise to you?

Frank Uhle: Oh, my gosh. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. It was there were so many untold stories. There were people, especially with the kind of underground culture emerging. So, like, in the sixties, there were people that were, you know, showing antiwar films and doing things that were obscene, showing, you know, experimental films. And, you know, a friend of mine who's a professor is still teaching at 92, Hugh Cohen, was arrested with three other members of Cinema Guild for showing a movie then deemed obscene. I mean, the Ann Arbor Police literally went into the auditorium, pulled the film out of the projector and took it off to the police station. And these people were tried and one of them ended up copping a plea. So, they got off---you know, charges were all dismissed. But there were things like that. There were protests in the early seventies. The Gay Liberation Front were going out and saying, "We don't like these films that have stereotypes of gay men." And they got on the stage and they, like, you know, started tearing the speakers off the wall. A whole different time was happening.

Deb Polich: Right. And media, still, of course, causes those kind of responses.

Frank Uhle: Right.

Deb Polich: It's such a visceral sort of a reality.

Frank Uhle: Right. But, again, just briefly, these stories were poorly documented. So, I interviewed participants. I interviewed Jim Toye and Hugh Cohen. So, I just want to make sure, and there's there's tons of photos I found.

Deb Polich: Very important people in our community and in many efforts like the gay community and likewise. Very, very important. Yeah, media can definitely change. Films can still change a life.

Frank Uhle: Right. Exactly.

Deb Polich: So, you've got a couple of events coming up in the next couple of days. And you mentioned the film festival. And we've got just a minute or two. But give us a quick lowdown.

Ann Arbor Film Cooperative 1979 Film Schedule
Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor Film Cooperative 1979 Film Schedule

Frank Uhle: So, over at the Ann Arbor District Library, in the basement, they had these big display cases on the walls of one particular room, and I filled that with images and archival documents from this book. So, that's number one. Number two, on Friday, the 24th at 3:30 in North Quad Room 2435, we're going to do a panel discussion about the film society's impact on local film culture and on the book. So, that will be myself, Hugh Cohen, and Dave DeVarte, Phil Hallman, and Anne Moray will all be there discussing this stuff.

Deb Polich: And the book comes out?

Frank Uhle: We'll have a limited number of copies on sale then. But the book official release date is June 20th.

Deb Polich: Oh, get your advance copy. I know somebody is going to be in line--Russ Collins.

Frank Uhle: Oh, a few people.

Deb Polich: And I'm going to have to I'm going to have to beat the phone and get the book from him and steal it from our nightstand.

Frank Uhle: Thank you.

Deb Polich: I want to say congrats on the book.

Frank Uhle: Thank you.

Deb Polich: And thanks for doing all of what you've done all these years. And thanks for being on creative:impact. Really appreciate it.

Frank Uhle: I love your show.

Frank Uhle and Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
Mat Hopson
89.1 WEMU
Frank Uhle and Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.

Deb Polich: Thank you. That's Frank Uhle. Find out more about Frank and his book, "Cinema Ann Arbor," coming out in June at WEMU dot org. And there will also be information about all these events he mentioned. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Creative Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti. Public Radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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