DETROIT: Dinner and a Movie…

25 Feb

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It’s a Saturday night in Detroit; there’s an event at the Senate Theater on Michigan Ave at 7pm, Senor Lopez Taqueria is just down the street, perfect! We are no strangers to Southwest Detroit, the amount of restaurants in the area is staggering; Senor Lopez is a little off the beaten path, and a little different from the rest. The owner, Rafael Lopez, is originally from Apan Hidalgo Mexico; using his mother’s recipes he opened his restaurant in Detroit in 2002. The menu is filled with the typical fare you’d expect to find at a Mexican restaurant, what separates Senor Lopez from the rest are the “house specialties”; dishes from Hidalgo. We stepped inside the tiny storefront, there were only two open tables; taking the one furthest from the cold air of the door, we were greeted with menus, chips and two types of salsa’s. It didn’t take long to decide, we chose one item from the list of house specialties and a combination plate.  Our plates arrived, everything looked scrumptious. The Chiles en Nogada is a dish of poblano peppers stuffed with granada, walnuts and other tasty items, the peppers are then fried in a light batter, covered with a sweet white sauce that tastes like honey and cinnamon and garnished with pomegranate, very appealing. As for taste, it is a wonderful blend of sweet and savory with a touch of heat mixed in, delicious, and like nothing else we’ve ever tasted, yum. The combination plate is perfect to split; two beef tacos, two cheese enchiladas, a burrito, rice and beans. It too was tasty, the sauce and seasonings different from most places in Southwest. When we had finished I went up to the counter where our waitress wrote up our bill and collected the money; we left the tip on the table and were out the door, we had a movie to catch!

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 The Senate Theater has called Michigan Ave home since 1926, mainly a neighborhood movie house it also hosted comedians and entertainers from time to time; as a matter of fact Danny Thomas performed here when he was still known as Amos Jacobs. The theater was remodeled several times, in the 30’s it was remade in the Art Deco style so popular at the time and was given a new facade and vertical  marquee. In 1949 it was remodeled in the Art Moderne style, after years of struggling, resorting to the showing of horror and X-rated films, it closed in 1955. In 1962 the Detroit Theater Organ Society had outgrown the space at the Iris Theater and was looking for a new home; there was the Senate, the seats gone, broken glass and mirror scattered about, the basement flooded and a large part of the roof  blown off, the DTOS said “we’ll take it”. After two years and countless man hours the DTOS had a new home.

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Tonight we are seeing five silent film shorts that will be accompanied with music played by Dave Calendine on the Mighty 4/34 Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ (Opus 1953), not your average night out on the town!  We enter the theater, the ceiling of the outer lobby is plastered with light bulbs, walls are porcelain coated in pale pink.  We pass through swinging red doors into the main lobby, here we purchase tickets and are tempted by the smell of popcorn. The Senate was never an extremely ornate movie house, the DTOS has been working on the renovations as funds have allowed; they’ve got a ways to go, but have recently done work on the lobby and replaced light fixtures. We have time to investigate before the show starts; a red Art Deco style ticket bin remains in place, the plaster pattern on the ceiling prevails and is trimmed in gold, vintage signs direct patrons to the restrooms. The 800 seat auditorium is plain, large grates flanking the stage were put in place to accommodate the pipe organ. We take our seats as the lights are dimmed, Betty Boop appears on the screen, remember when a cartoon was always played before the movie?

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The films are accompanied by music that is dramatic, whimsical, despairing and merry; reflecting the character’s situation. Buster Keaton is fantastic in One Week, we are introduced to silent actors by the names of “Snub” Pollard and Jimmy Aubrey.  When the last movie ends we are surprised how quickly the time has passed. Anyone interested in seeing the mighty Wurlitzer and the organ chambers is invited onstage for a tour, we are so there. Standing  close to the organ we can really appreciate the craftsmanship and details. Originally built for the Fisher Theater in 1927, it was played there until 1961 when the theater was remodeled. The Fisher brothers spared no expense, the organs specifications allow it to be played for both cinema and concert work, it is the eighth largest organ Wurlitzer ever made. With 34 ranks (rows) of pipes this organ can make almost any sound from chimes and xylophone to castanets and a bird whistle. The console is huge, painted gold it is decorated in Aztec motif; the decoration on the side reminds me of a totem pole, patterns are painted in terracotta, green and blue. There are countless rows of keys and numerous foot pedals; imagine this, the organist is moving both hands, both feet, reading music and watching the film for cues all at the same time, now that’s incredible. We go behind the stage into the chambers, it’s warm in here and there is little room to walk, instruments are made of tin, lead, zinc, brass and wood, labels help us to discern what we are seeing.  Room after room, a maze of pipes, tubing and wire, there’s way more to this then I expected. A 25 hp Spencer turbine blower installed in the basement under the stage makes it all work. When the organ was being installed new chambers had to be built on the old stage in addition to the original chambers that already existed. We finished our tour and thanked our hosts, Cool.

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We finished off the evening with cocktails at Abicks Bar on the corner of Gilbert St and Dennis, in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood. Manya is the current owner, at nearly 90 years old this is the only place she has ever lived. Her parents bought the bar in 1919, she was born and raised here and when she married, her husband moved in. She raised her own children here and then her grandson who these days helps run the place. This truly is a neighborhood bar; it has a vintage tin ceiling, old photos hang on the walls, there’s a pool table, juke box and a TV, if you’re interested there’s even a cigar room.The bar is the beautiful old-fashioned kind, dark wood, a big mirror and cabinets with pretty stained glass doors on each end. On any given night you will see a variety of folks stopping in for a cold beer or cocktail; hipsters, factory workers, locals and suburbanites, everybody is welcome. The music isn’t too loud, fellow patrons are friendly, it’s a cool place to relax and have a drink.

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