FOX THEATRE DETROIT – ONE OF THE LAST GREAT MOVIE PALACES

The lobby and entrance of the Fox Theatre Detroit – One of the Last Great Movie Palaces.

Elvis Presley at the Fox Theatre Detroit.  1950s.

Scott Martelle’s OP ED piece in today’s Los Angeles Times takes a look at the collapse of Detroit… asking the question whether or not the Motor City is the future of many American cities? The once great industrial capital of the world is home to the FOX THEATRE… one of the last remaining movies palace in the USA.

Hear the Mighty Wurlitzer play at the grand Fox Theatre in Detroit, Mich. The Fox is a National Historic Landmark and has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis to Iggy and the Stooges. The Wurlitzer used to provide sound for films and entertain guests during intermissions and before the show. Sorry for the shakiness and lack of quality; we were sans tripod and top-shelf equipment.

The Fox Theatre is a 1928 movie palace and performing arts center located at 2211 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, Michigan, near Grand Circus Park. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. Located within the Detroit Theater District, the Fox has 5,048 seats, (5,174 seats if removable seats placed in the raised orchestra pit are included). It is the largest surviving movie palace of the opulent 1920s. Its seating has been exceeded by other more recent theatres, such as the 1932 Radio City Music Hall (5,900 seats), the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium (6,300 seats), the 2009 Los Angeles Nokia Theatre (7,300 seats) and others. The Fox was fully restored in 1988. The adjacent office building houses the headquarters of Olympia Entertainment and Little Caesars.

Current view of the Fox Theatre Detroit.

The Detroit Fox was the first movie theater in the world to be constructed with built-in equipment for sound films. The Fox Film Corporation’s patented sound-on-film system “Movietone” enabled the theater to present sound films from the time of its opening.

Jack Benny at the Fox Theatre Detroit.

The Fox opened in 1928 and remained Detroit’s premier movie destination for decades. Unlike many neighboring theatres, it operated continually until it was closed in the 1980s for restoration. However, by the 1960s, the venue was showing its age and maintenance of many key areas was deferred. By the 1970s mezzanine and balcony seating areas were closed.

The 1980s brought new hope for the Fox when in 1984 Chuck Forbes, owner of the State and Gem theaters, proposed a renovation project. These plans were never fully realized, but in 1988 the theater was acquired by new owners, Mike and Marian Ilitch, who fully restored the Fox at a cost of $12 million.  Their company, Ilitch Holdings, Inc., is headquartered in the Fox Theater Office Building.  The downtown area near Grand Circus Park which encompasses Fox Theatre is sometimes referred to as Foxtown after the theater. In 2000, Comerica Park opened and helped to revitalize the neighborhood along with the construction of Ford Field in 2002.

The Fox Office Building, which forms the Woodward facade of the theatre, is 10 stories in height. The front and sides of the office tower are faced with a cream-colored terra cotta. There are decorative lintels above the windows on the second and tenth floor. The building wraps around the theatre lobby creating a u-shaped floor plan. The auditorium and rear of the office tower are faced with brick.

The current marquee was installed during the 1987 restoration but is based on the original which itself was replaced in the 1950s.

The original configuration of the street and second floors contained 20 retail spaces on each level. Spaces featured large display windows looking into the corridors and ground floor spaces also had access directly from the street.

Office space occupied the third through tenth floor and featured marble floors and wainscoting in the corridors. Office doors featured full-length glass with glass transoms above to allow light and ventilation into the corridors. Many of these features remained when the 1987 restoration began with the exception of the seventh floor which was altered in the 1970s to accommodate a Social Security Administration office.

The theatre entrance on Woodward opens to a small foyer with a black and white marble floor. The foyer opens into the main lobby which is approximately 87 feet (27 m) deep and six floors high. The floor is terrazzo with brass inlays but it was unseen until the 1988 renovation. Lore says that Eve Leo, wife of Fox President William Fox, was unhappy when she learned that the theatre was to have a bare floor. She insisted it needed carpeting, so it was covered with what was the largest single-piece wool rug ever manufactured. The rug covered 3,600 square feet (330 m2) of the lobby floor and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg).

Above the entrance doors are faux organ pipes fashioned from plaster and in a balcony to the upper left is a 3-manual, 13-rank Moller organ. The real pipes are in the chamber above the console. On each side of the lobby are eight vermillion scagliola columns. The columns rise from black octagonal bases and are adorned with eagles, flowers, glass jewels highlighted by silver leaf to a height of approximately 12 ft (3.7 m) . The Corinthian capitals are also silver leafed and bear images of a variety of animals and birds. The columns support plaster beams decorated with faces, starbursts and cartouches. Between the columns are small balconies on the mezzanine and balcony levels that overlook the main floor. The ceiling is blue with a sunburst design surrounded by Fox griffins. At the rear of the lobby, the grand staircase leads to the mezzanine level. Two plaster lions with jeweled eyes guard the base of the stairs and fish-like creatures adorn the balustrades. On the mezzanine level, four additional columns frame two-story windows enclosing the auditorium. A loggia above the windows allows patrons on the balcony level to look down into the lobby.

Beside the grand stairs are doors leading to the 2,898 orchestra-level seats. The auditorium is 104 ft (32 m) high and 175 ft (53 m) wide. An inner lobby wraps around the seating area and contains two oval stairways leading to upper seating levels and the lounges on the lower level. The walls of the auditorium are shades of beige and are adorned with molded plaster plants, human faces, geometric designs, birds and animals.

The proscenium is 70 ft (21 m) and 30 ft (9.1 m) high. Like the side walls, it is adorned with animals, human figures, starbursts and flowers. Above the center of the proscenium is an elephant’s head. Suspended below the elephant is a large quatrefoil-shaped censer that conceals speakers. The backstage area originally had 18 performer dressing rooms, offices and a broadcast booth. In the basement were staff dressing rooms, workshops, an infirmary, screening room and storage rooms.

The orchestra pit and sections of the stage can be raised and lowered on hydraulic lifts. The stage is 78 ft (24 m) wide, 32 ft (9.8 m) deep and houses the four-manual 36-rank Wurlitzer organ. This organ was constructed especially for the theatre and is only of only five in the world that remains in its original installation.

On the side walls at the orchestra level are Moorish arches extending to the balcony. Above is a colonnade at the balcony level with nine vermillion scagiolia columns matching those in the lobby. The columns support decorated arches and behind the first three are grilles that conceal the bays containing the 2,700 pipes and other effects for the organ. The areas between the other columns are filled with tinted mirrors. The walls are topped with a cornice decorated with lion and human faces set among geometric designs and sunbursts.

The ceiling is designed to resemble a round tent with an oculus supported by spears. The tent drapes slightly and is covered with acoustical felt bearing a stenciled design. The ceiling of the oculus is blue with a globe chandelier of colored glass suspended from a starburst design. The chandelier is 13 ft (4.0 m) in diameter weighs 2,000 lb (910 kg) and contains 1200 pieces of glass.

The projection booth was one of the largest of its day and originally housed four projectors, three spotlights and a Brenograph machine to produce special effects.

The gala opening took place September 21, 1928 and featured the silent film ’’Street Angel’’ starring Janet Gaynor. The live show depicted a history of Detroit from its settlement in 1701 to the present. Productions included feature-length movies, shorts and newsreels, and performances by the 60-piece Fox Theatre Grand Orchestra, a 50-voice choir and the 32-member Tillerettes-owner William Fox’s version of competitor Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel’s Rockettes.

In the 1930s , Shirley Temple herself made appearances when the theatre showed her films. During World War II, like many theatres in the area, the Fox operated 24-hours per day to accommodate defense plant workers on afternoon and evening shifts. The theatre routinely grossed $75,000 per week when admission was $.35. In 1953, the theatre was the first in Michigan equipped for CinemaScope and premiered the epic picture The Robe.

In May 1956, the theatre hosted three performances by Elvis Presley During the 1960s, the theatre hosted performances by many Motown recording artists but by the 1970s the theater was an aging venue. Unlike other downtown Detroit theaters in the 1970s, such as the Michigan and United Artists, the Fox was able to remain open by programming Blaxploitation and martial arts films.

The first production at the Fox after restoration was a concert on November 19, 1988 with Smokey Robinson and the Count Basie Orchestra. Since then, other notable performances include a concert with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. & Liza Minelli which was recorded and broadcast on the Showtime cable network in 1989 and a 1990 performance by Victor Borge which was recorded and shown on PBS and incorporated into his DVD Victor Borge: Then and Now. The theatre hosted the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony on March 31, 2007, the night before WrestleMania 23, being held at nearby Ford Field. As well as The Condemned World Premiere the night before on March 30, 2007. Live productions have included Sesame Street Live: Let’s Be Friends, David Copperfield, Blue’s Clues Live!, Donny Osmond, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Dora The Explorer Live, Go! Diego! Live! and What’s Done in the Dark and Riverdance. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular was an annual favorite from 1997 through 2005. The Fox was used in the closing scenes of a Chrysler commercial for its Chrysler 200, featuring Eminem, that aired during Super Bowl XLV in February 2011.

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