Detroit Opera House
The story of the Detroit Opera House is punctuated by a series of grand openings, closings and re-openings.
It began its existence in the early 1920s as Detroit’s first true movie palace, the Capitol Theatre. It was one of many grand monuments built in a time when the city of Detroit was reaching the zenith of its importance and wealth, and like many of those monuments, its grandeur began to fade as the city’s wealth and prestige diminished. It is the site of many Detroit firsts, including the city’s first rock ‘n’ roll show, and its first international film festival. But dark times would see the theater close and become ravaged by time, vandals and the elements. And it was nearly left for dead until an intrepid general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre saw that a movie palace designed to look and feel like a grand opera house of Europe might be the perfect home for his company. The Capitol Theatre would live on again as the Detroit Opera House.
Motion pictures come to Detroit
The first public showing of a motion picture in Michigan took place in 1896, at what was then the Detroit Opera House on Campus Martius. According to George B. Catlin’s “The Story of Detroit,” the film was of a bullfight in “the City of Mexico,” using an early projection device called an eidoloscope. Catlin describes the poor quality of the production, and the equipment: “The tremulous flickering of the picture was quite distressing. Most of the spectators were relieved when the exhibition was over.”
Catlin goes on to describe the beginnings of the motion picture business in Detroit. In the first years of the 20th century, small vacant shops downtown were converted into pop-up theaters showing short picture reels. Detroit’s first proper movie theater, The Casino, opened in 1906, on Monroe Street. Soon, movie theaters, or “silent dramas” (remember, early films had no audio), were drawing patrons away from “legitimate theaters.” At the time Catlin’s book was published, in 1923, the theater industry in Detroit had matured a great deal, and the name of one man became synonymous with its success. His name was John H. Kunsky. Catlin calls Kunsky “the leading impresario of Detroit.” It was Kunsky, with his partner Arthur Caille, who opened The Casino. Kunsky also was responsible for many other Detroit theaters, including the larger Adams and Madison theaters, both built near Grand Circus Park in 1917.
Just one year before Catlin published his book, Kunsky had outdone himself once again, opening the biggest and most elaborate movie theater Detroiters had yet seen, the first in Detroit built in what would become known as the “true movie palace style,” the Capitol Theatre.
Detroit’s first true movie palace
“By the time the Kunsky-owned Capitol opened across the street from the Madison in 1922,” writes Stuart Galbraith IV in “Motor City Marquees,” “the movie theater began to make the movie itself a secondary experience.”
It was the dawn of the Jazz Age, when bigger was beginning to mean better. By 1922, Kunsky had bought out his partner Caille’s share of the theater business and taken on as a junior partner George W. Trendle, his former accountant and lawyer. The pair worked together to relocate the city’s entertainment center from Monroe Street and Campus Martius to the growing shopping district surrounding Grand Circus Park. To design the biggest and best theater in Detroit, they turned once again to architect C. Howard Crane, who by 1920 had established himself as the city’s foremost theater architect.
Crane got his start converting an existing Detroit building into The Casino for Kunsky in 1906. He also designed the Adams and the Madison, and later, the State (now the Fillmore Detroit), Fox and United Artists theaters. Crane also designed many famous non-theater buildings in Detroit during this period, including the Lafayette Building, Orchestra Hall, and Olympia Stadium, a former home of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.
By 1922, Crane had toured the great opera houses of Europe, and they became the major influence in his design for the Capitol Theatre. Fashioned in the Italian Renaissance style, Crane incorporated all the features that made Detroiters then (and now) feel as though they had taken the trip to Europe without leaving their hometown: large crystal chandeliers, a grand marble staircase, lavish carpeting, walls decorated in elegant murals and original oil paintings. The great hall is a long promenade, connecting Broadway and Madison streets, flanked on one side by the auditorium. To give the promenade a feeling of length, the lobbies on each side are kept intentionally small for such a large theater. The effect works: More than any other existing downtown Detroit theater building, the great hall invites visitors to stroll up and down its length.
Within the auditorium, the stage is framed by a grand, intricately designed proscenium arch. The main stage curtain at the opening was made of a rose-red Italian damask. A vaulted ceiling with variously shaped coffers hangs over the large balcony and 19 semi-circular box spaces that wrap around the main floor. And yet, it wasn’t just the look of the opera houses of Europe that Crane brought to his design of the Capitol. Crane was also an expert at designing theaters with superior acoustics. He had designed the acoustically perfect Orchestra Hall just a couple of years earlier, and Crane took pains to give the Capitol a similar quality.
For the building’s exterior, Crane designed two facades. The main facade, on the busier Broadway side (the streetcar used to stop within view of the entrance), is a glazed white terra cotta Beaux Arts design, featuring colossal Corinthian columns. The Madison street facade is of red brick with terra cotta trim. Longacre Engineering and Construction, of New York and Detroit, was contracted to construct the theater. Crane’s original design called for an exotic rooftop garden, featuring an elliptical dance floor, but this was never built.
Along with the grandeur of the old, the theater included some of the most impressive theater technology of the time. A rather small pipe organ made by Hillgreen, Lane & Co. of Alliance, Ohio, was installed at a cost of $50,000 (more than $685,000 today). It was one of the largest organs in the United States at the time. The movies were still silent when the Capitol opened, so it was important for its organ to have, as the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 12, 1922, described, “all of the effects required in modern pictures, including such sounds of pistol shots, wind whistles for storm effects, police sirens, etc.”
The total cost of building the theater was $2.25 million or, in today’s money, when adjusted for inflation, about $30.8 million.
The grand opening
When the Capitol opened, it became the fifth largest theater in the world. Kunsky and company boasted that the theater contained 4,250 seats — more than any other theater in Michigan at that time — although that number is dubious, as it’s rumored that Kunsky was liberal with how he defined “seats” and included the toilets in the bathroom in that number.
The gala opening night on Jan. 12, 1922, was a major Detroit event, with the line to enter circling the building. It was reported that more than 4,500 people attended the opening night, with many filling the aisles, hallways, and corridors. The opening film was “The Lotus Eaters” starring John Barrymore, but the biggest thrill for that night’s guests was to see a movie of themselves. According to the Free Press, Jan. 13, 1922:
“The program opened with the taking of a picture of the audience. The auditorium was flooded with light from four very large reflectors placed on the stage, and the camera clicked merrily for several minutes. The negatives were then hurried to the laboratory and a few minutes less than two hours, the people were amazed to see themselves seated in the lower floor, the balcony and the boxes. The announcement that the feat constituted a world’s record was received with applause.”
The world record mentioned was the taking and developing of a film — in less than two hours time!
The program also included a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” by the Capitol’s orchestra, as well as solo and duet vocal performances by popular local singers.
Roaring in the 1920s
In its first five years of business, the Capitol presented programs featuring first-run films supported by live performances by the theater’s house orchestra, the Capitol Wonder Orchestra, led by Eduard Werner. The Capitol Wonder Orchestra, a smaller orchestra than the Detroit Symphony, featuring 35 to 40 players, played a vital role in each program, playing classical numbers and backing well-known local singers and dance bands.
Its members would often do double duty as the orchestra at the Madison Theatre across the street on Broadway. On days when players had to work both theaters, they would use an underground tunnel between the two theaters — since bricked up — to get from one job to the other. From 1922-1926, many a Detroiter enjoyed free afternoon concerts at the Capitol on Sundays, referred to by many as “the poor man’s orchestra.”
Occasionally, the star of the new film showing at the Capitol would make a personal appearance at the theater and give a prologue before the film, an excellent promotional device for filling seats. And sometimes, the spectacle was truly extraordinary. For the film “The Chorus Lady,” real horses were brought out on the Capitol’s stage for a race, achieved by having the horses run on a treadmill. A double bill of “Inez from Hollywood” and “The Winter Carnival” included a live skating show on the stage from the Oriole Skating Ballet.
It was a grand beginning for a building that would be a prominent landmark amid a growing theater and shopping district in and around Detroit’s Grand Circus Park - a district quickly becoming known as “Kunsky Circle.” By the end of the 1920s, Detroiters could get off the streetcar on Broadway on a Friday night and find themselves surrounded by electrically lit marquees and big blade signs, beckoning them to enter.
Show business wasn’t the only business taking place at the Capitol. The building also included office spaces for rent, in order to provide steady income during the ups and downs of the theater season, a common practice for many downtown movie palaces. One of the Capitol’s most notable original tenants was Walsh College, which held its first classes in September 1922 in two rooms on the sixth floor. According to the Walsh College website, the tuition during this first year was $60. Another early tenant with a long stay at the Capitol Theatre through the years was Sidney Krandall & Sons Jewelers. The building rented to hosts of different kinds of businesses throughout the years, including a bookstore, shoe stores, and offices for various kinds of professionals.
Paramount takes control
The late 1920s and early 1930s were a time of great change for the Capitol, as it was for the United States in general. In 1928, The Capitol installed the audio equipment for its first “talkie” film, a baseball movie starring Richard Dix called “Warming Up.”
Throughout the booming 20s, Kunsky and Trendle continued to grow their theater empire. By 1929, Kunsky Theatres owned 20 theaters in Detroit, including two magnificent new movie palaces: the State Theatre, now the Fillmore Detroit, which opened in 1925, and the Michigan Theatre, which opened the following year. For most of the ’20s, it was Trendle who was in large part managing the theater business, according to his biographer Mary E. Bickel. Trendle was known as a savvy businessman, and in late 1928, he felt that it was time for he and Kunsky to get out of the theater business. The Paramount Publix company, under the leadership of Sam Katz, was aggressively acquiring theaters in the Midwest and New England in order to grow its chain of movie theaters. After extensive negotiations, Kunsky and Trendle sold their entire interest in the Detroit movie theater industry — including the Capitol Theatre — to Paramount-Publix for $7.5 million (about $101 million today). Trendle’s biography reports that he negotiated a cash buyout of the theater chain, instead of being paid with Paramount stock, which was the standard way that Paramount would buy out theater owners. It was a smart decision, as the Paramount stock price plummeted months later after the stock market crash of 1929. Kunsky and Trendle would use the profit from the sale to invest in a new form of entertainment: radio.
Parmount-Publix wanted to assert its arrival in Detroit immediately and re-named the theater The Paramount shortly after taking possession of the theater. With the change in ownership also came an upgrade in the large organ. The Hillgreen, Lane & Co. organ was removed — its whereabouts today are unknown — and replaced by a Publix I Wurlitzer organ. But even with all of the efficiencies that come with running a centralized operation, Paramount could not manage to make its operation at the Capitol come out profitable while the country was moving into an economic depression.
Holding far too much debt from its acquisitions of so many theaters all over the country and facing decreased demand for entertainment as discretionary spending drastically diminished, Paramount filed for bankruptcy, and was forced to close down the Paramount Theatre in December 1932. The theater sat idle for more than a year and a half until it was acquired by United Detroit Theatres, which asked Trendle to return to the theater business in order to bring the downtown theaters back to profitability.
The Broadway-Capitol years
The theater’s second change in ownership brought about its third name change, this time to the Broadway-Capitol Theatre. A 1934 Free Press article concluded that the name was changed again because Detroit moviegoers never stopped calling the building the Capitol during the years it had a Paramount sign over the main entrance, just as many today still call the Fillmore the State Theatre, or refer to DTE Music Theatre as Pine Knob. Unlike the Capitol’s previous two names, this one would stick for the next 26 years, through the worst days of the depression, the war years of the 1940s and the years of rising middle-class prosperity and mobility of the ’50s, when urban flight and the rise of the suburbs began to erode the downtown theaters clientele.
The theater reopened Aug. 31, 1934, with the film “The Scarlet Temptress” starring Marlene Dietrich. According to the Free Press, the theater was renovated and fitted with “the latest improvements in the showing of talking pictures.” The Free Press made a great ado in its description of the audience in attendance, made up of “the great of the social world, whose names appear prominently in Blue Book registers” and of the “hundreds of men and women, who, having finished a day’s work in factory or kitchens, went to the theater to find a new world created before their eyes.” Apparently, Detroit really needed a lift at a time when the Great Depression was still wearing on the city. The Free Press story ends almost gleefully that “leaders throughout the city point to the event as another indication of prosperity’s return.”
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, the Broadway-Capitol showed a mix of first and second-run films. In 1943-44, in the midst of World War II, Broadway-Capitol patrons would have been treated to showings of “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity” and “Arsenic and Old Lace,” as well as lesser-known films like ““Women in Bondage: The Story of Hitler’s Women.” One could expect to pay 58 cents for a ticket to any one of these movies. During the war, newsreels were also in high demand and showed at the Broadway-Capitol.
For much of the 1940s, the Broadway-Capitol was also known for a popular radio show that took place at the theater every Sunday. “Radio Schoolhouse,” hosted by Dick Osgood, was one of WXYZ radio’s most popular shows. A mix of “Mickey Mouse Club” and a quiz show, a cast of children would perform musical numbers between segments of the quiz, where the kids would walk microphones out to the audience members who could win cash prizes for answering general-knowledge questions. Once a regular cast member turned 16 years old, she “graduated” from the show, and the annual Graduation Sunday show became a big event. The audiences that lined the block to get into “Radio Schoolhouse” on a Sunday would often be treated with a free movie after the show was over.
In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the Broadway-Capitol became a great place to see local and touring jazz and rhythm and blues acts. The theater hosted Saturday-evening concerts in the early ’50s, broadcasted on WXYZ radio. Duke Ellington had a one-week stay in late November 1950. In March 1954, Dinah Washington made her first appearance at the Broadway-Capitol, but suffered the misfortune of having as an opening act a one-legged dancer named One Leg Bates who, according to Free Press critic Helen Bower, stole the show. Louis Armstrong, the Benny Goodman Band (without Benny Goodman, who was sick and unable to perform), Guy Lombardo and Lionel Hampton also made appearances at the theater around this time. Perhaps the most notable live concert at the Broadway-Capitol theater in this period took place in 1954, when Bill Haley & The Comets played Detroit’s first rock show.
The movie business at the Broadway-Capitol in the 1950s was characterized by a new policy of staying open 24 hours on some nights and showing several movies in a row for a single ticket. One such event took place in April 1955, a “24-Hour Shriek Preview” of “Revenge of the Creature” and “Cult of the Cobra.” In 1956, the theater was the site of many interesting, although not always mainstream, world premieres. These included “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”; “The Bold and the Brave,” starring Wendell Corey and Mickey Rooney; “Rock Pretty Baby,” a film about “today’s rock-and-roll generation” starring Sal Mineo, who made an on-stage appearance at the film’s opening; and “The Big Beat,” starring Fats Domino. The theater also started showing the kinds of movies that would keep its doors open two decades later, movies like “The She Creature,” “Love Slaves of the Amazons,” “From Hell it Came,” “The Flesh is Weak” and “Blonde in Bondage,” just to name a few.
In 1957, the Publix I Wurlitzer pipe organ, installed in 1928 when Paramount took over the theater, was removed. It would spend several years at Detroit’s old Arcadia Ballroom. In the 1970s, it resided in a private home, and by the 1980s, it was shipped to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif., where it survives today.
End of the movie palace era
Although the 1950s were full of activity for the Broadway-Capitol, the theater fell behind its many competitors — both downtown theaters and the growing number of state-of-the-art suburban theaters with new, wide-screen viewing equipment and high-tech audio. But in 1960, United Detroit Theatres once again took control over the theater, and, led by president Woodrow R. Praught, invested $100,000 in renovations to transform the old movie palace into a more spacious, welcoming, and high-tech theater.
The new owners updated the projection equipment to a wide-screen 70mm projector system, which had become the new standard for movie projection during that time. Seating was reduced from 3,200 to 1,400 to allow for larger, more spacious seats and wider aisles. Other improvements included custom-designed green, gold and red carpeting inspired by the Edison Memorial Fountain in Grand Circus Park, “cathedral lighting” of the leaded-glass lobby ceiling, a fireside lounge area on the mezzanine level, and circus-themed murals. A large V-shaped marquee above the Broadway entrance replaced the old marquee, and atop that new marquee was a new name for the 38-year-old theater, “The Grand Circus.”
Touted by its own marketing as “Downtown Detroit’s new luxury showplace,” the Grand Circus Theatre reopened Dec 23, 1960, with the film “The World of Suzie Wong.” A good deal of promotion went into the reopening — free parking was given a great deal of prominence in the advertisements that ran in the newspapers leading up to the event. That advertising paid off, and the new owners found initial success with “Suzie Wong,” grossing $20,000 in its first week, according to “Motor City Marquees.”
Praught’s hope was to restore to the Grand Circus the importance that it once had as a major Detroit theater. Praught made a financial gamble by hosting Detroit’s first international film festival at the Grand Circus on June 7, 1964. The festival featured seven international films chosen as some of the best that year. In its assessment of the film festival, the Free Press wrote that “the public was apathetic, but less apathetic than expected,” but Praught “saw the festival as a prestige item — for his chain, for the downtown area, and for Detroit itself.”
Unfortunately, that prestige didn’t sustain the business, and the Grand Circus changed owners again in 1964, this time to another advocate for downtown theaters, Nicholas George, who had opened a successful line of suburban theaters and was beginning to invest in reviving theaters downtown. George would go on to take over the Michigan Theatre in 1967, as well as the Telenews. For a time, the Grand Circus downtown and George’s Mai Kai Theatre in Livonia would share movie billings. Some of the films a Detroiter could have seen at the Grand Circus in these years were “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Billy Budd,” Disney’s “The Sword and the Stone” and “Goldfinger.”
As the 1960s came to a close and the ’70s arrived, Detroit’s population began to sprawl into the suburbs in even greater numbers, and the daily clientele for all the downtown theaters diminished. The movie industry followed the people to the suburbs, and new theaters began to be built that contained two or more picture screens within the same building, allowing for more variety than the single-screen theaters downtown. Downtown theaters like the Grand Circus began resorting to the kinds of films that could bring in revenue: horror, gore, Blaxploitation, kung-fu, and soft-core porn. This was a more profitable alternative than tearing the theaters down for redevelopment, because the cost of razing these buildings was far greater than what the land was worth, so depressed were the property values at the time. So in many ways, the years of showing exploitation films helped save many downtown theaters, including the Grand Circus.
By the end of the ’70s, the mezzanine and balcony levels had been roped off, as had the seats on each end of the main floor, leaving only the middle section open for the few folks who would wander in to catch whatever R-rated movies were on the bill. The theater’s owner at that time, Fred Goldberg, announced its closing because of high operating costs. The Grand Circus Theatre’s period of running double and triple bills of cheezy second-run movies finally ended on Oct. 28, 1978. On that day, the Free Press reported that a line rounded the nearby Madison Theatre, which was actually enjoying large crowds for its first-run showing of “The Wiz.” It was a stark contrast to the small crowd that wandered into the Grand Circus to catch the last movie’s ever shown inside its hallowed halls, a triple billing of three forgettable flicks: “A Naked Rider,” “At Last, At Last,” and “Jailbait Babysitter.”
A year later the papers were reporting rumors that the theater may be torn down, or transformed into a “cabaret-disco.”
Grand Circus Live!
After the final film reel was put away, the theater sat idle for a few years until it was reopened in 1981 for a new purpose, as a rock concert theater. The new owner, David Grossman, was 19 years old at the time. Nearly 30 years after Bill Haley and The Comets took the Broadway-Capitol stage to perform Detroit’s first rock show, the theater would now host some of the most popular rock acts of the 1980s, as well as other touring musicians, like Haley contemporaries Roy Orbison and Ray Charles.
Reopened as Grand Circus Live, the venue’s first major event was a 50-hour Rock-a-thon that featured 40 local bands playing back-to-back from Friday night until Sunday morning. Among the many bands that took the Grand Circus stage over the years were the Plasmatics, Grace Jones, the Eurythmics, The English Beat, The Clash, Cyndy Lauper, The Violent Femmes, Bon Jovi, Gang of Four, R.E.M., Motorhead, the B-52s and U2.
In April 1982, during the B-52s’ appearance, the balcony began to shake alarmingly, and following that show, the city nearly shut down the theater for building code violations. Yet Grossman was able to keep the theater open, and later that year, on Nov. 12, 1982, the Grand Circus played host to the first MetroTimes Detroit Music Awards ceremony and concert, featuring headliners Platinum Riders, who had won Best R&B/Funk Band, and Cadillac Kidz, the winner for Best Rock Band.
But while rock was giving the theater a purpose, the shows and their raucous crowds took a toll on the building. A 60-year-old theater requires quite a bit of upkeep, and it seems as though the owner’s ambitions and goals for the building exceeded his ability to maintain it. A failed attempt to build a rooftop restaurant caused damage to the ceiling. A small fire in late November 1985 finally caused the theater to be closed, to many, it seemed like for the last time.
In the ensuing years, thieves broke in and stole artifacts and stained glass, and neglect from years of use with little maintenance left the building exposed to Michigan’s rough climate changes. In more bustling American cities, the building would have been a prime candidate for demolition, but downtown Detroit’s depressed property values in the late 1980s made the building more expensive to tear down than to just leave standing. So there it sat, lifeless and uncared for, “demolition by neglect,” as Detroit theater historian Michael Hauser has put it.
A home among the wreckage
It is a testament to the building’s original construction that, in 1988, David DiChiera, general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre, could survey the interior and see past the building’s cracking plaster, the large holes in the ceiling leaking water into the building, the debris-covered stairways, the flooded orchestra pit with a piano floating in it, and the rank moldy smell, and see the future permanent home of the opera troupe.
Since the founding of the MOT in 1971, the company has produced many top-rate operas but never had a theater it could call its own, putting on productions at Music Hall, the Fisher Theatre and the Masonic Temple throughout its history. It took many months for DiChiera and the MOT board to come to the decision to buy the building and then more months in order to close the deal. There was much to decide, but DiChiera cites the opinion of one special adviser in helping to make the decision. In an interview with WDET-FM’s Craig Fahle on the 90th anniversary of the building, DiChiera told the story of bringing Luciano Pavarotti — one of 20th century opera’s best-known stars — to see the building.
DiChiera recalled: “I was looking at the house itself, and the shape of it. I remember bringing Pavarotti here … and asked him to see this theater that I was thinking of transforming into an opera house. Now, I had to be very careful because he is a very big man. … He started walking to the stage and I said, ‘No, no, no! Luciano, you don’t want to go onto the stage.’ It was so dangerous, he would have just fallen right into the basement. But I said, ‘Let’s go here to the side.’ So he looks and looks at the whole house, and I asked, ‘What do you think? Would you give a few notes?’ And he let loose with something and goes, ‘Yeah … you know, David, I like this sound … this acoustic. You finish it, I’ll come and open it for you.’ ”
The MOT officially took possession of the building in 1989 at a cost of approximately $250,000 (remember that, in 1922, the cost to build the theater was $2,250,000).
But that was only the first in many steps of a long process of planning, fund-raising, renovating, then repeating the process, in order to transform the old Capitol Theatre into the Detroit Opera House. After stabilizing the building to prevent further decay, the MOT began its first of three major capital campaigns to raise the money to transform the building. It took a great deal of time, energy and fund-raising to generate the money needed to make the repairs that would allow the building to minimally operate as a functioning opera house, let alone to pay for the full-scale renovation.
But just because it couldn’t house a full-scale production at first didn’t mean that the building was unusable. In fact, the MOT held a major fund-raising dinner in the auditorium just before the renovation began. A temporary floor had to be built, with temporary electrical lighting, to fashion a workable dining area within the auditorium. Hauser, who was in attendance at the event, remembers that “the building was still a cocoon” and that “plaster was falling from the ceiling onto people’s plates and in their drinks.” There were no indoor bathrooms. “Mayor (Dennis) Archer and everyone else had to go outside and use Porta-Johns.”
A treasure reborn
Groundbreaking on the renovation and transformation took place on June 21, 1993.
When the work finally began, it was extensive. The goal was to restore the building to be as historically accurate to the original Capitol as possible. Repairing or replacing the terra cotta facade on the Broadway side of the building alone was a huge project. For two years, pieces of the terra cotta were removed and shipped to a New York state company that specializes in terra cotta repair and replacement, and then shipped back, affixed to the facade, and the next section would be shipped out, until the job was complete. All of the capitals at the top of the columns had to be re-created. The chandeliers, which still remained because they were too large and unwieldy to be stolen by vandals, had to be stripped and repainted, and many crystals had to be replaced.
And transforming the building into an opera house took much more than just renovating the great hall and auditorium. Opera on the scale that the Michigan Opera Theatre produces requires space for huge, heavy, and expensive sets, dressing rooms for large casts, makeup rooms and costume storage, not to mention business offices. So the MOT bought and razed the adjoining buildings — the Roberts Fur Building and the International Arts Building — in order to build a 75,000-square-foot stage house. The original movie house stage was never meant for large-scale dramatic productions, and measured only 26 feet deep. The renovation would increase the depth of the stage to 65 feet, the width to 110 feet, and raise the height to 100 feet. The stage house contains a sophisticated system of 89 ropes that can be used to lift large, expensive and extremely heavy sets, allowing a scene to change on stage from a large medieval castle to an open field in a matter of minutes.
It is the white exterior of the stage house, carrying the building’s prominent Detroit Opera House insignia, that people now see as they drive around Grand Circus Park on Witherell street.
The building was officially reopened on April 21, 1996, 11 years after it had been left for dead, with a gala concert featuring Pavarotti, who fulfilled his promise to open the opera house. Dame Joan Sutherland was there too, declaring the Detroit Opera House “open and ready for music.” That spring, the theater housed its first large-scale opera, Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The theater not only hosts the MOT’s regular opera seasons, but also dance and ballet performances, the annual holiday performances of “The Nutcracker,” as well as traveling Broadway shows, such as “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins,” “Wicked” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” The building also has a black box theater, a dance studio, classroom spaces and a large library holding a collection of all the details of every MOT performance in its history.
Since the MOT reopened the old theater as the Detroit Opera House, the area surrounding Grand Circus Park has seen a resurgence. The construction of Comerica Park and Ford Field relocated the city’s baseball and football teams within walking distance of its opera company. A state-of-the-art YMCA was built on the other side of Broadway and John R. And the Broderick Tower reopened in the fall of 2012, on the other side of Broadway facing Grand Circus Park. Restaurants and retail are beginning to come back, as well, bringing more foot traffic and more people back to downtown. The renovation of a dilapidated old movie theater in what was a depreciated and unseemly part of town may not have been the cause of all of this redevelopment and renewed activity. But it certainly helped.
But it’s not just what the theater has done for the area, or the world-class performances that take place within its walls that make this theater so special. Whether you’re a sophisticated professional with season tickets to the opera, or a child with her family who is visiting for the first time, you feel like you’re in a different place when you walk through the lobby doors into the great hall and walk the promenade, or climb the steps of the grand staircase. Which is exactly the feeling C. Howard Crane was trying to achieve in his original design, and what the renovation of the theater to Crane’s original plan has done. In a 1925 issue of The Architectural Forum devoted to motion picture theater design, the magazine describes the experience of walking into one of these new movie palaces.
“The people of today’s hurly-burly, commercialized world go to the theater to live an hour or two in the land of romance,” it wrote. “So it is that the sophisticated playgoer must be taken up, on the architect’s magic carpet, and set down suddenly in the celestial city of gorgeous stage settings, luxurious hangings and enchanting music. The atmosphere of a king’s palace must prevail to stimulate the imagination of those who come within its doors. … The successful theater architect must master the psychology of the theater-goer. He must understand the patron’s love of adventure and be able to excite his spirit of romance.”
Today, thanks to the dedicated men and women of the Michigan Opera Theatre, that magic carpet continues to whisk Detroiters away.