Historic Detroit

Bonstelle Theatre

From a temple to a theater.

The Bonstelle Theatre was originally the Temple Beth El synagogue, designed by architect Albert Kahn – who belonged to the congregation. The domed building stands at 3424 Woodward Ave., between Eliot and Erskine. During the widening of Woodward in the mid-1930s, the front was drastically changed. In 1925, it housed a theater company and was named the Bonstelle Playhouse, the name that would prove to be the longest lasting over the years. After the Depression, the theater was used as a movie house. In 1951, the theater was acquired by Wayne State University, which restored its name and function as a theatre.

The temple years

Detroit’s Jewish residents founded the Beth El Society on Sept. 22, 1850, making it the oldest Jewish congregation in Michigan. The growing reform congregation moved to several buildings before hiring Kahn, a member of the congregation, to design a new temple. He turned to Roman and Greek temples for inspiration, giving the building a Beaux Arts look. Located on the east side of Woodward Avenue, between Eliot and Erskine Streets, the temple was built on a lot 100 feet wide and 200 feet deep. The cornerstone for the temple was laid at 3 p.m. April 23, 1902. It took only seven months to finish the building, and the first services were held Jan. 24, 1903.

“Our magnificent new temple and Sabbath school, that shall be your pride as it is mine, and as it shall be that of every Jew in the community, if not indeed of every public spirited citizen — monuments your seal and energy in behalf of a sacred cause — the cause of religion and a nobler community,” Rabbi Leo M. Franklin was quoted as saying in the Jewish American (predecessor to Detroit Jewish News) during the annual meeting of the Congregation Beth El in 1902. Franklin hoped locating the temple on well-trafficked Woodward would increase the temple’s visibility. Under Franklin’s direction, the congregation instituted the unassigned seating system and reached out to young Jews by expanding the temple’s religious school. Franklin served as rabbi for the congregation for 40 years, from 1898 until his retirement in 1941.

The congregation was steadily growing. By 1910, when the temple celebrated its 60th anniversary, the congregation had 422 members. In the Jewish American, under the notes concerning news from the Temple Beth El, the paper had frequent applications from people who wanted to join the congregation. The synagogue’s growing membership meant that the congregation needed a larger temple. In 1922, the Temple Beth El moved north, to Woodward and Gladstone, near the affluent Boston-Edison neighborhood. This new temple also was designed by Kahn.

Ground for the new synagogue was broken in June 1921. The building would be “equipped to meet the ever-increasing needs of a congregation that has grown more than 400 percent, in the last 20 years,” Kate Freedman wrote in a Detroit Jewish Chronicle article titled, “Turn sod on site of Beth El’s new house of worship.” Under Rabbi Franklin’s direction, Freedman wrote, the congregation had grown from 126 families 20 years earlier to almost 200.

And the domed, columned building at 3424 Woodward was quickly renamed, perhaps so it wouldn’t be confused with its successor. By September 1922, The Detroit Jewish Chronicle newspaper wrote that the “services for the Eve of Atonement will be held in Woodward-Eliot Auditorium, formerly Temple Beth El.” That November, the new Temple Beth El hosted its dedication ceremony, and the former synagogue would get a new life as a home to the performing arts.

As for the second Temple Beth El on Woodward and Gladstone, it served as a synagogue until 1973, when the congregation abandoned the city for the suburbs. The congregation’s third temple was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who designed a number of buildings on Wayne State’s campus, One Woodward Avenue and the World Trade Center in New York, among other landmarks.

The playhouse

Purchased in late 1924 for $500,000 (about $6.7 million today, when adjusted for inflation) by Eugene Sloman for Jessie Bonstelle, the former synagogue got a new life as a home for the arts. Bonstelle had conducted a company at the Garrick Theatre for 15 years before finding a permanent home with the former Temple Beth El. Bonstelle was featured in a series of articles in McCall’s in 1929, giving advice to aspiring actresses.

Architect C. Howard Crane — who designed Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, Fox and United Artists theaters and what is today the Detroit Opera House, among others — reconfigured the former temple into the Bonstelle Playhouse. This marked the building’s first, but not last, major redesign. Former classrooms became the stage floor, balconies were added, and a false ceiling was suspended over Kahn’s plaster design to deal with the issue of acoustics.

Under Bonstelle’s direction, the company gained national respect. Aside from performing about 27 plays a year, the theater also hosted concerts, speeches and church services. Among the actors who got their start with the Bonstelle stock theater company were George Seaton, who was the voice of the Lone Ranger on WXYZ; Sidney Blackmer (who later appeared in “Rosemary’s Baby”); Katharine Cornell; Gale Sondergaard and Melvyn Douglas. Bonstelle’s passion for Detroit and theater were clear: “I believe so firmly that Detroit is destined to be the first city in America,” wrote Bonstelle in a letter dated Feb. 4, 1930, on Detroit Civic Theatre letterhead.

Following financial issues, however, the theater company was reorganized into the Detroit Civic Theatre on July 1928, and the nonprofit theater company took over her lease. Bonstelle remained as the theater’s managing director. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time the theater ran into financial difficulties. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the theater struggled to stay afloat during the early years of the Great Depression. Ticket prices were dropped, scrip book sales were organized, but it wasn’t enough. The theater didn’t survive the Depression.

After her death on Oct. 14, 1932, only one more season of plays was produced. The final season saw Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” and Isben’s “The Wild Duck” performed, but not in the same location. The Bonstelle Civic Theatre was moved to the Detroit Institute of Arts auditorium for programs from that 1933-34 show. Because of financial issues, the Bonstelle itself had been shuttered in 1933. It would be nearly 20 years before another play was shown there. Further, the widening of Woodward Avenue altered the building’s facade, and the entryway, with its distinctive arches, was torn off.

Hollywood moves in

After the Depression shuttered the Bonstelle, it reopened in late 1933 as a two-screen movie house. Unlike the Beth El and the Bonstelle, the Mayfair stayed out of the news, leaving behind only movie listings in Detroit’s daily newspapers. In October 1938, the movies “Gateway” and “Pride of the West” were playing, and the theater advertised it had “free parking” and was “open all night.” Its phone number was 1-3313. A historical photo of the Mayfair was taken, not because of the theater, but because of the burning cars from the 1943 race riot unfolding in front of it. However, fate was going to bring theater back to the Bonstelle again. After two decades, Wayne University officials took interest in the building.

The return of theater

After a nearly 20-year interlude playing movies, actors returned to the Bonstelle’s stage. In the 1940s, a young Wayne University was still carving out a campus in the cultural center, and its theater department was looking for a permanent home. During the 1940s, Wayne’s thespians used makeshift spaces for rehearsal and performance, including rented spaces in churches, a garage on Putnam Street, the Masonic Temple, and the Detroit Institute of Arts auditorium. Wayne’s Old Main had an auditorium, but after the surge of student enrollment following World War II, that space was appropriated for other uses.

“The morale of the theatre staff needs, and deserves, a ‘lift,’” a Wayne University official wrote in a 1951 letter to school President David D. Henry. In July 1951, the university — then under control of the Detroit Board of Education — went before the board to propose renting the former Bonstelle Playhouse, with an option to eventually purchase the property.

“Scenery has been built and stored at one location, church meeting rooms have been used for rehearsals, and such facilities as could be obtained for the occasion have been used for performances,” Wayne administrators told the Board. The Board of Education approved the agreement, and in August of that year, the university began renting the Bonstelle for $16,000 a year (about $141,000 today, when adjusted for inflation). They also had a five-year lease and the option to purchase in the amount of $135,000 (about $1.2 million). The theater offered a large stage, good acoustics and, mostly important, the first permanent space for the theater department.

“At last a real theater of our own!” exclaimed a 1952 Detroit Collegian editorial titled “No Vacancy.” “No more hustling around in back alleyways or in converted church auditoriums or high-rent off-campus theaters. We finally had a theater for our exclusive use that was truly a theater.” The editorial was already calling the theater the Bonstelle — a name that would crop up periodically throughout Wayne’s ownership of the building. However, the theater wasn’t officially renamed until 1963. Until then, the official name of the theater was the clunky Wayne University Theatre.

For its first season, the theater opened with a world premiere of a new opera, “Eastward to Eden” by Jan Meyerowitz. The new theater space would prove to be a tremendous boost to the theater department, giving the program room to expand and develop. With a stable home, audiences attending Wayne plays grew: from 20,466 in 1948-49 to 50,204 in 1953-54, an interdepartmental memo from Leonard Leone, the theater’s director. Wayne’s theater program made several trips overseas, starting with a tour in India in 1958.

On June 1956, the Detroit Board of Education voted to buy the building for $86,000, paid to Herbert Meyer, agent of the Lobel Realty Co., which owned the property.

Back to the Bonstelle

“The Bonstelle Theatre name has been restored,” Leonard Leone, director of the University Theatre, told Inside Wayne State in 1963. For the 1963-64 theater season, the cycle of changing names for the old temple came to an end. To help commemorate Bonstelle’s contribution to Detroit theater, the awkward University Theatre name was discarded. Leone retired after 47 years at WSU, 39 of them as theater director.

Ticket sales for WSU productions continued to rise, as a record number of people — around 130,500 — bought tickets for the 1966 season. The numbers were likely boosted by Wayne State’s second theater, the Hilberry, housed in the former First Church of Christ Scientist building, across from Old Main.

Lily Tomlin got her start at the Bonstelle. Known then as Mary Jean Tomlin, she had a small part in the play “Madwoman of Chaillot” during the 1960-61 season and a larger role as Georgette the following year in “The School for Wives.” Ernie Hudson of “Ghostbusters” fame also took to its stage.

Today, the Bonstelle is a 1,200-seat Broadway-style theater and is home to WSU’s undergraduate company, which produces four shows a year.

Jessie Bonstelle’s ghost is said to haunt the theater. “Her soul was the theater, now the theater is her soul,” wrote Mary McHenney wrote in the Detroit Discovery magazine in 1974.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 3, 1982. In May 1987, the old Mayfair Theatre’s façade was removed and replaced with a modern canopy.

In May 2000, to commemorate the temple’s 150th anniversary, the theater hosted a musical based on the history of the Temple Beth El.

There also are a number of connections between the Bonstelle, Wayne State and the Jewish community over the decades. When the city’s high school — the former state Capitol building — was destroyed by fire in Jan. 27, 1893, the Temple Beth El temporarily let the Detroit Board of Education use it for quarters. Central High School was constructed to replace City High — and Central is now known as Old Main, one of the oldest buildings on WSU’s campus. On May 13, 1952, Leonard N. Simons, a Jewish businessman and member of Wayne State University Press’ editorial board, was elected president of the Temple Beth El. Today, the Leonard N. Simons Building on Woodward Avenue houses the offices of Wayne State Press. This building also was designed by Kahn.

Evelyn Aschenbrenner is author of “A History of Wayne State University in Photographs” (2009, Wayne State University Press).