Picture this: Detroit, 1928, Saturday night. You are dressed up, walking down Woodward Ave with a group of friends to see a movie; theaters seem to line the streets, marquees are dazzling. You pass the newly opened Fox Theatre followed by the State, entering Grand Circus Park, the Madison, Wilson, Capitol, Adams, United Artist and Michigan Theatres all compete for your 35 cents, the cost of a ticket. For that 35 cents you will see a newsreel, a cartoon and feature film, if you’re lucky, you may even see a Vaudeville show. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton dominate the big screens, Disney’s Steamboat Willie premiers, making the official introduction of Mickey Mouse, Janet Gaynor stars in Street Angel, for which she will win the Oscar for Best Actress, Greta Garbo stars in the Divine Woman. The smallest of these theatres, the Adams, seats 1,770, the largest, the Fox seats 5,041, that’s a lot of popcorn!
Our deep affection for 20th Century architecture is clearly evident in the photos alone contained in DetroitDvotion. The ultimate objects of our affection are old theatres; the designs drip with the ornate, indulge in fantasy. We are taken to far away places that may or may not exist. Every day folks were surrounded by beauty and fine things: enormous chandeliers, marble columns, murals, grand staircases; the reality of daily life shelved for a few hours. Today we are joining Preservation Detroit for a tour of the State Theatre, now known as the Fillmore; designed by C Howard Crane, who also designed the Adams, Detroit Opera House, Madison, Orchestra Hall, Fox, United Artist, Garden Theatre, Majestic, Bonstelle and Olympia Stadium, thank you Mr Crane. The State opened in 1925 with 2,967 seats. At the time of its opening, the State was one of America’s grandest film palaces featuring oversized chandeliers, paired ionic columns, rich draperies and an elaborate ceiling dome. The theatre operated continuously from 1925-1981, in 1937 the name was changed to Palms-State, then The Palms in 1949. Thankfully, Charles Forbes, a pioneer of Detroit historic preservation purchased the building in 1979, (He also saved the Fox, Gem, Century, Colony Club and Elwood Grill) it re-opened as the State once again in 1983
Our tour begins in the lobby of the Palms Building, it was common in those days for a theatre to adjoin an office building, that way if the theatre did not succeed, the office building covered the expenses of the building. This section was modernized in 1960, a few original Beaux-Arts touches remain such as the gorgeous elevator doors, one elevator is still original too. We make our way through the State Bar into the outer lobby of the theatre, here the ceiling is coffered, burgundy, green and gold cover the walls and plaster details, gold leaf adds pizzazz. Moving toward the auditorium, a beautiful, curving, marble staircase leads to the mezzanine level, above it the entire ceiling is an oval medallion of design. We ascend the staircase and find ourselves in the inner lobby, a barrel-vaulted ceiling rises overhead, the original 1925 chandeliers are aglow, walls are decorated in high detail from top to bottom, giant mirrors reflect beautiful images, original sconces cling to the walls. On ground level side exit doors are stained glass framed in dark wood, at this moment they are lit up by afternoon sun.
We proceed into the auditorium itself, walking all the way to the front of the house and onto the stage, the uninterrupted view spectacular. There are three levels, the main floor has been converted to cabaret-style seating as has the mezzanine level, the balcony retains theatre seating. At first my eyes are drawn all the way up to the dome ceiling, it feels stately and serious, further down the walls semi-circular grates rest upon pairs of columns, below that are more archways. A scallop design defines the mezzanine level it appears as if individual box seats fill this level, the facade highly decorated; we get a sense of the immense seating arrangement. From this position we are in close proximity to the knights decked out in full armor guarding stage right and left, they appear at the ready if the need arises. We make our way back to the Main Floor, walking toward the back we turn and face the stage to take in the proscenium, it’s spectacular, the green and gold color scheme carries over into the theatre, an eagle rests on the highest peak. From here we notice huge stained glass ceiling panels, the off-white glass pieces are embellished with a spider web design, high on the walls grates are backlit in red, the original organ pipes are still tucked away in these walls. As we make our exit we take notice of the framed rock and roll posters clinging to the walls, fitting now that Live Nation leases the theatre.
Back in the State Bar & Grill the last group begins their tour, leaving plenty of open tables, we choose one near the front windows and order lunch. The State Bar opened in 2000 and features rescued architectural remnants from Detroit landmarks such as Downtown Hudson’s and an eastside church, the space is quite attractive. Directly across the street is Comerica Park, I imagine this place is pretty busy on a game day. We order the Spicy Western Burger; a half-pound burger topped with BBQ sauce, deep-fried jalapenos, pepper-jack cheese and onion rings, served with a pile of homemade chips, we split the burger and an order of cheese sticks, yum! There was more than enough food for the two of us. It has been another great afternoon in the D, we walk away from the building with a feeling of contentment. The building has withstood the test of time, for the last 90 years people have been entertained in this theatre, the current tenants have been thoughtful caretakers of this palace, we appreciate that.