DETROIT: The Gem Theatre

20 Dec

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Keeping with the Christmas spirit, we planned an afternoon with friends to see The All Night Strut Holiday Show at the historic Gem Theatre. The Gem and Century have a fascinating history; The 20th Century Club was built in 1903 by a prominent group of civic-minded women in Detroit, it was actually the first building permit issued in a woman’s name in the city, 24 years later the Century Club completed construction of the adjoining building, the Little Theatre. In 1928 the theatre was leased to the Motion Picture Guild, which operated the Little Theatre Chain, the theatre showed the first foreign film in Detroit. In 1933, because of the Depression, the women’s group was forced to leave the building. A beer garden then leased the rooms of the Century Building, it was called The Russian Bear, complete with a Russian menu and balalaika music, it operated throughout the 40’s.Through the years The Little Theatre had seven names including the Rivoli, Drury Lane, the Europa, and the Vanguard Playhouse. During the time it was the Vanguard, the theatre housed the professional residential theatre company founded by George C Scott. The Vanguard Playhouse continued to put on experimental theatre into the 60’s. In 1967 it was renamed the Gem and operated as an adult movie house, that closed in 1978. In 1984 Chuck Forbes purchased the Gem Theatre for $5,000, he also purchased the 20th Century Club; after an 18 month, $2.5 million dollar restoration the building was returned to its original Spanish Revival-style magnificence, on New Year’s Eve 1991 the Gem Theatre officially re-opened. When plans were announced to build Comerica Park and Ford Field the Gem and Century once again faced demolition. Fortunately for all of us the building completed it’s five block move to its current location on November 10, 1997, breaking the Guinness Book World Records as the heaviest building ever moved on wheels. The Gem Theatre celebrated its grand re-opening in the fall of 1998.

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We arrived at the Gem and parked in the structure behind it for free. A walk around to the front reminded me of what an elegant building this is; reddish-brown brick with lots of  stone details, the Gem has a wide entrance for theatre patrons arriving for a show. Three windows with elaborate stone work and balconies add drama to the facade. Six steps take you up to the lobby with its gorgeous pewabic tile floor and wainscoting, wooden beams and golden-colored walls give this area a cozy feeling. Enter the magnificent cube shaped theatre itself; the carpet was re-created from scraps of the original found in the basement, the opulent lighting fixtures and theatre seats were salvaged from the Ambassador Theatre in St Louis. The main floor features 4-person cabaret-style tables, the mezzanine is made up of 250 red velvet seats. Exquisite ceiling and proscenium panels have been reproduced in gold, ruby and sapphire, it’s absolutely amazing! 

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We grabbed ourselves a drink from the adjoining bar in the Century, took our seats, and the show began. The All Night Strut has played off and on at the Gem since 1991 and it’s always a hit. Four singers take you back in time to the 1930’s and 40’s with songs like Chattanooga Choo Choo, White Cliffs of Dover, Minnie The Moocher and I’ll Be Seeing You. Dressed in vintage clothing, they look perfectly at home in this beautiful historic theatre. From the first song on you will be totally entertained, they sing, they dance, they make you forget all the things you may have been thinking about when you entered the building. After the intermission a large sleigh was placed on stage, the actors were now wearing Christmas outfits, and the songs were holiday favorites.  While the quartet sang and danced three musicians were also on stage playing the music live; there was a piano, bass and drums, they were awesome as well. Time flew by quickly and before I knew it the show was over.

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With Christmas songs still playing in my head we drove over to Broadway for dinner at Angelina’s Italian Bistro. The four of us walked in the door to an empty restaurant, the host asked us if we had reservations, I looked around and thought “do we really need them?” Turns out many of the tables were reserved as Detroit theater was hopping! Between The All Night Strut at the Gem, Sister’s Christmas Catechism at the Century and Wicked at the Opera house, reservations were a good idea! We sat at a table by the window and watched the rain come down, it was just before 5pm but because of the weather it looked much later. The dining room is floor to ceiling windows, in the summer they open them up making it feel as if you are eating outdoors. Overlooking Grand Circus Park, The Detroit Opera House and Comerica Park, there is always something going on. The restaurant has a contemporary look and feel  to it, in addition to tables they have a full bar that seats 35 and serves up many of Detroit’s local brews. The menu is filled with appetizers, small plates, house made pastas, pizzas and full entrees. At our table we enjoyed the Bibb Lettuce Salad; candied almonds, grapefruit and red onions over a bed of tender bibb lettuce, dressed with a tasty honey mustard vinaigrette. The Smoked Chicken Pizza was delicious; basil pesto on a thin parmesan crust with smoked chicken, mozzarella and caramelized red onion, excellent. One of our friends ordered the Seafood Risotto, it looked wonderful with plump shrimp and scallops in addition to the vegetables, he said it was very good. Oh, and I can’t forget the Butternut Squash Ravioli, simply to die for. 

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It was such a lovely way to spend a day; good friends, a good show, and good food. If only every day could be like this!  Both the Gem and the Century offer wonderful entertainment in a spectacular atmosphere.  Adult beverages and small plates are available before and during  show times. In addition, the Century Club serves lunch and dinner at The Century Grille Restaurant located on the lower floor. The All Night Strut Holiday Show runs from now until December 31, don’t miss it! As they say….Have A Kool Yule!

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