Historic Detroit

Alhambra Theatre

The Alhambra Theatre was built as a movie house, but it is most remembered for being the place that got dancers grooving as a notable recording studio in the 1970s.

The Alhambra opened on Nov. 1, 1914, as part of the John Kunsky’s chain of theaters. It was designed by architect C. Howard Crane, who would later become renowned for his work on theaters.

The theater served Detroit’s rather hoity-toity neighborhood of Boston-Edison as was located more than 4 miles north of downtown. This means that some of the area’s residents, including Henry Ford, Walter Briggs, Horace Rackham and Sebastian S. Kresge may have wandered in to take in a flick at the Alhambra.

The building’s exterior was rather plain, given the mansions across the street and the wallets of its clientele. It was done in an eclectic design borrowing from the Arts and Crafts movement, though with a classical pediment above the marquee.

Its auditorium was Neoclassical and sat 1,475 people. The Alhambra hosted not only movies, but Vaudeville and other live acts, and featured a $2,900 Hillgreen & Lane organ. A six-piece orchestra also sometimes accompanied the silent films.

While many theaters during this era saw their busiest nights on Sundays, the Alhambra was dead. After all, Sunday was the day the rich went to the country clubs.

The Alhambra also had to change its films on an almost daily basis. Unlike most other theaters, those in the neighborhood were rich enough to attend a film whenever they wanted. This led to a problem in 1916: not enough films.

Thomas D. Moule, the Alhambra’s manager at the time, told “The Moving Picture World” magazine in 1916 that “I have had difficulty getting just the right films … and of course the character of the attendance here precludes my showing anything but good pictures,” he said, referencing the high-class clientele of the neighborhood. “There are too many suggestive pictures and too many that are fit only for grown people to see. … Producers must remember that the majority of people are not only honest, but decent and that they object to anything suggestive in pictures the same as they do in a speaking play. It will be for the best interests of the motion picture business for the producers to realize this before suggestive pictures force Detroit to appoint a board of censorship.”

The studio years

With the rise of the automobile and the suburbs, and as tastes changed, the Alhambra went under in 1959.

In 1967, a young music producer named Arthur “Artie” Fields bought the theater and turned it into a recording studio. Fields was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Ann Arbor with his family, then later to Dearborn, when he was still young. By age 15, he was playing with bands around metro Detroit. The Cass Tech High grad had been a staple on Detroit’s music scene for years, though often in the background. He had led an orchestra for Fortune Records in the late 1950s and wrote songs for Don Rondo, Spanky Wilson and others. He also penned the song “Go Get ‘Em, Tigers” in 1967 for Detroit’s baseball team and such beloved commercial jingles as “Where the Rubber Meets the Road” for Firestone tires; “Let’s Go Kroger-ing” for the supermarket chain; and General Motors’ “Mark of Excellence,” among others.

After buying the Alhambra, Fields had the lobby divvied up into smaller rooms. Oddly, the control room was on a different side of the building from the recording studio. The auditorium was used for storage and as an echo chamber for recordings. Far and away, the best-known album recorded at the studio was the MC5’s “High Time,” which had the old movie theater rocking in September and October 1970. Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train To Georgia” was laid down by Fields in the old Alhambra, as were a number of albums by Westbound Records acts, including the Ohio Players, the Detroit Emeralds and the Fantastic Four.

Fields also ran his own record label out of the old theater, Top Dog Records, and produced all of the label’s singles. Among the Top Dog artists were Joe Towns, the Camel Drivers, Rondo and Kris Peterson.

The studio continued to pump out recordings through the 1970s. At some point, however, Fields closed up shop. The theater eventually become a church but was abandoned by late 1990s or early 2000s.

The theater was razed in 2007, and the site is now home to a liquor store. Fields, died Oct. 14, 2009, at age 87.