Historic Detroit

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Comique Theatre

This forgotten theater was one of many designed by noted Detroit theater architect C. Howard Crane.

It began its life as the Crystal Theater, the brainchild of Eugene Silverman of Milwaukee. Ironworkers began erecting the steel for the building on Aug. 10, 1905. The entrance was at what was then 231-233 Randolph, near Gratiot and Miami Avenue (today known as Broadway).

The Crystal was billed as a first-class vaudeville house offered seven or eight acts and four performances each day. The Detroit Free Press wrote Aug. 11, 1905, in previewing the Crystal's opening, that "every step is being taken to make the new theater worthy of the city in every way" with "ample precautions against fire." The auditorium was finished and decorated in light green, and "the seats will be as comfortable as they can be made," the paper promised. The ground-floor theater had an easy, gradual decline to the orchestra pit, and its 40-by-30-foot stage rose 3 feet off the floor. There were 500 seats on the ground floor and 500 more in the balcony, which was supported by iron pillars.

Every seat in the house was 10 cents, save for a few loges for 20 cents. There was no reserved seating.

"People may wonder how we can give a first-class performance on a 10-cent admission," Silverman told the Free Press, "but it is just as easy wen you have four performances, as it is with two performances and a 25-cent house. Of course, we cannot pay extravagant prices for headliners who are more name than anything else, but we can and shall have first-class, clean, up-to-date bills to which any man can take his family. There will be nothing of any other sort tolerated. I believe we have a splendid location and we shall give Detroit people a good show for a small out of money."

Trouble rises before the curtain can

But less than two weeks after the Free Press previewed the theater's opening, legal issues arose. Silverman and business partner William M. Baker sought to depose John W. Jackson as the president and manager of the Crystal Theater Co., accusing him of misappropriating funds and lying about his credentials of managing a theater.

"If Jackson had been permitted to continue the supervision of the building, Baker says the theater would not have been ready for opening before Dec. 1," the Free Press reported Sept. 6, 1905, and that "much of the work that Jackson did has to be done over again. As a sample of the latter's alleged incompetence, Baker points out that Jackson did not provide for heating the theater." A judge ruled Sept. 5, 1905 that Baker and Silverman were justified in canning Jackson.

The building contractors, The Vinton Co., had put 50 men on the job, rushing to get it ready for its promised opening of Sept. 18 - which was less than two weeks after the judge's ruling.

Despite the odds, the Crystal did, indeed, open Sept. 18, 1905. "When Detroit's new vaudeville house, the Crystal theater, opens its doors on its initial performances tomorrow evening," the Free Press wrote Sept. 17, 1905, "the public will experience a mild surprise. Where a few days ago all was chaos, nothing but four walls enclosing a mass of lumber, plaster and debris, there is today a cosy (sic), homelike little theater, complete in every detail."

The Crystal shines

The opening bill featured Miss Maude Rockwell - billed as "America's greatest prima donna soprano" - as the headliner, as well as the "Schank family of marvelous acrobats," Kippy "the tramp juggler," the comedy musical act of the Two Sharplies, the "illustrated songs" of Oliver Wilber, the Kinodrome of moving pictures and, sadly, the "blackface comedians" Hibbert and Warren. This was what passed as "high-class vaudeville" at the time, apparently.

"When the curtain went up on the 7:30 performance, every seat in the house was occupied," the Free Press wrote the day after the Crystal's opening. "Before the bill was half through, scores of patrons were waiting outside for the second performance, scheduled for 9 o'clock. Everything in the house was ready for the opening. Only one hitch occurred the entire evening, and that was the burning out of a fuse while the illustrated picture machine was in operation."

The following week's lineup was headed by the Juggling Jordans, with Howley & Emeron - "talking comedians" who were "a sure cure for the blues" - Coleman & Mexis, "the shooting wonders," who shot the ashes off a cigar held between the teeth using rifles and pistols"); and Master Slater, a boy tenor, among the performers. Other early performers included Jack Brown and Lillian Wright, the "dancing wonders"; "the mystery known as Zutka," which was "an automaton that 'acts up' when connected with an electric battery"; and William Ver Valin & Co., "the ventriloquist wonder and the mechanical woman." In January 1907, Gilbert's One-Ring Circus came to town, bringing trained ponies, dogs and monkeys to the Crystal, and a Captain Henry would demonstrate the wireless telegraph. Dracula the contortionist performed that March, and, contrary to what one may believe, he did not "suck," if the newspaper reviews are to be believed.

"It is no wonder that Gratiot triangle, where Miami Avenue and Randolph Street "butt in" is ... becoming a rival of Woodward Avenue as a promenade and popular meeting place," the Free Press wrote Sept. 25, 1905. "It was not so long ago that this little breathing place where the Gratiot cars turn the corner with a hair-raising swish was dim and dull and mysterious after the evening shades slipped down. ... This is all changed now. The city electric lights have faded to insignificance beside the illuminations of the Crystal Theater, the penny amusement place, and the shop windows. The night lunch wagon provides the truly metropolitan air, and a band of evangelists warn the sinners who patronize the vaudeville house that their way leads straight to the pit. ... Gratiot triangle is feeling the pulsations of progress in common with the rest of the city."

It's unclear when things started going south for the Crystal, but in May 1907, the theater put out ads seeking vaudeville acts - "wanted immediately" and "at all times." Either because of a lack of performers to fill the bill or because of increasingly steep competition, that same month, on May 28, 1907, the Crystal's lease and equipment were auctioned off in bankruptcy court. However, the bids were all deemed too low. The highest bid came from a William M. Baker, with a paltry $4,600; the appraisers put the value at $12,672. The auctioneers tried again June 9, then again Oct. 13.

On Oct. 26, 1907, articles of association were filed with the county clerk to reorganize the Crystal as the Theatre Comique. It is unclear whether its creditors gave up and decided to try running it themselves, or whether it did, indeed, finally sell at auction. The shareholders in the new theater company were David J. Berger, William Rosenthal and Edmund Sloman.

In reporting about the reorganization and name change, The Detroit News reported the following day that the winter season would open with Bert Shepherd, "the well-known Hebrew comedian, assisted by Miss Angmon and their trained foot ball dogs" and Professor Manson, "the Australian giant, who breaks a stone with his bare fist and allows a 200-pound stone to be broken on his chest with a sledge hammer."

All the while, through the auctions and reorganization, the theater continued to put on shows under the Crystal name, with engagements running through at least Dec. 14, 1907.

The curtain rises on the Comique

The theater officially reopened Feb. 17, 1908, as the Theatre Comique, offering "high-class continuous performances" of "Vaudeville, illustrated song and moving pictures" from 1:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Its name was French for "Funny Theater." Theatergoers were invited to "stay as long as you like," all for the price of 5 cents for a balcony seat or a dime for the ground floor. When adjusted for inflation, that's the equivalent of $1.72 and $3.45 in 2024 dollars, respectively.

"Little remains of the appearance of the old Crystal theater," the Detroit Evening Times wrote Feb. 15, 1908, ahead of the Comique's debut. Calling it "a bright little place" and "a playhouse of the people," the paper went on to describe it being "practically as complete as an opera house of the first class. It is the largest theater of its kind in the country and the management aims to make it the best."

The auditorium was remodeled, with the theater's capacity reduced from 1,000 to 700 in order "to give all the patrons a better view of the stage than was formerly the case," the Evening Times explained. The makeover also saw new decorations, lighting system, marble box office and ventilation. The Detroit Free Press noted on March 3, 1908, "that former patrons of the old Crystal Theater will scarcely recognize it as the same place." The bills, however, seemed mostly the same, with comedians, singers of Irish ballads, stunt performers, and Kollins & Kilfton, "America's premier banjoists." The Detroit Evening Times noted Feb. 22, 1908, that "The Theater Comique caters especially to the women and children, and nothing offensive or suggestive will be tolerated."

George W. Stark, a legendary Detroit News columnist, reminisced about the theater in a Feb. 1, 1952, column, writing that as a young boy, "I would stroll over to the old Comique Theater. ... For only a nickel, I would enter and take my fill of the flickers, staying on and on, until the theater was closed for the night."

Among the Comique's claims to fame was opening with an electric sign - which the Evening Times claimed on Feb. 22, 1908, to be "the largest ever erected on the front of a building in America," at 40 feet in length, 25 feet in height and containing 530 lights. The paper went on to say that the Comique was "the newest of the theaters to make a bid for the 5- and 10-cent trade," and that its "decorations are really works of art, which would do credit to the highest-priced theaters in the city."

And competition was, indeed, steep in Detroit among Vaudeville theaters at this time, with competitors such as the Gayety, Lyceum, Whitney, Temple, Princess and Avenue.

As Detroit continued to grow by leaps and bounds, "movie palaces" began springing up downtown and in the neighborhoods. These spectacular showplaces provided competition the smaller theaters like the Comique could not hope to hold their own against.

A hero named Arcady Bubnob

Then, as if the stiff competition wasn't enough, shortly before 6 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1925, a roll of film caught fire in the Comique's projection room. There were 300 people in the auditorium at the time.

"While the audience was being thrilled by a spectacular film, a silhouette of flame suddenly shot across the screen and from the projection room," the Detroit Free Press wrote on the front page the following morning. "For a time, it appeared it was all part of the film until somebody yelled, 'Fire!' A stampede for the aisles followed. ... Several women were trampled upon in the mad rush for the exits, but none was seriously injured. Several fainted, but were revived by the physicians who were rushed to the scene." Projectionist Arcady Bubnob was found unconscious in the projection room, "still clutching remnants of the film." He suffered severe burns on his arms and legs in his attempt to put out the flames and carbon dioxide poisoning "inhaled in his lone battle with the blaze."

The Free Press heralded Bubnob as a hero for ensuring the stampede wasn't worse but urging people to remain calm.

Though the Free Press reported that "the damage to the projection room was small," the Theatre Comique's name disappeared from the ads and reports of new shows that were so commonplace. It was not the Comiqe's last brush with tragedy - and we're not talking about the kind that occurs on stage.

On Oct. 4, 1926, six people were injured when a section of the Comique's brick-and-wood cornice fell, after some scaffolding holding two painters came crashing down. Three people, including the painters, were injured when the cornice fell, with the three others hurt in a "frantic attempt to rush from the theater," The Detroit News wrote the following day. "So great were the crowds passing back and forth at the time of the accident that the police reserves and rescue crews of the Fire Department were called."

The show went on, however, as "the performance continued after the audience had been restered to order," the News reported.

The last time the Comique's name appears in either of the major daily newspapers was Oct. 29, 1927, when a pickpocket got pinched in the act during a performance. It is not clear when the theater closed, but city building permits show that on May 16, 1928, an unknown entity was approved to turn the theater's lobby into a storefront. Then, on Oct. 9, 1929, a permit was filed with the City by Crowley Milner & Co. to convert the Comique into retail space. Crowley's was a massive retailer, second only to Hudson's, that occupied most of two city blocks, so the acquisition of the Comique Theatre building folded it into the sprawling store. In doing so, the building's address was absorbed into the larger Crowley's store, as well. Therefore, it is unclear exactly when the theater was demolished, but it is likely that it was razed with the rest of Crowley's in 1977-80. Crowley's closed in 1977.

Note: There was also another playhouse in Detroit known as the Theater Comique in the 1870s that was unrelated to the theater depicted here.