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Fox theater's rebirth ushered in city's renewal

Detroit's Fox Theatre, site of the 2002 Fash Bash, is one of America's shining success stories. Rescued from decay in the late 1980s, the theater sparked creation of Detroit's cultural center.

By Michael H. Hodges / The Detroit News

September 18, 2003



Once she had many sisters -- the Michigan, the Adams, the United Artists, to name a few -- even if none quite compared to the Fox in size and gloriously ostentatious splendor. Today those other temples to popular pleasures are all shuttered, the elegant Michigan brutally retrofitted as a garage.

The Fox might have suffered a similar fate. TV and the rush to the suburbs beggared the once-proud dowager, leaving it by the 1970s reeking of urine and abandoned to all but Kung fu and horror-flick enthusiasts.

Today, however, the restored Fox is one of America's shining success stories. Last year the 5,000-seat Fox sold 642,000 tickets -- outpacing its larger rival, Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall, and clinching the title of "No. 1 theater in North America" from Pollstar, an industry trade journal.

"The Detroit Fox is the most spectacular, over-the-top movie palace ever built," said Ray Shepardson, the theater preservationist who oversaw the Fox's $12.5 million renovation in 1988.

"It goes way beyond gaudy and hits magnificence."

Plans for celebrating the 75th anniversary, sometime later this year, are still under discussion, according to Denise Ilitch, president of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the Fox.

The Fox's impact goes way beyond just boosting downtown's entertainment options. When the Ilitches bought the theater and moved their Little Caesars corporate headquarters into offices above it, they pioneered a virtually abandoned downtown.

Cause and effect is hard to prove, but if you tally projects that followed in the wake of the Ilitches' move -- casinos, stadiums, other theaters, Compuware and the renovated Renaissance Center -- you easily top $2 billion in downtown investment.

"Their moving downtown (from the suburbs) was one of the pivotal events in turning things around down here," said Michael Hauser, marketing manager at the Michigan Opera Theater.

"They were one of the first examples of bucking the trend."

To be sure, Detroit is not the only city where theaters have contributed substantially to a rebirth -- experts often cite Cleveland and Playhouse Square, or the emerging theater district in Chicago's Loop.

Still, said Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, "Detroit may be the most vivid example of theaters leading the way in redeveloping a downtown."

Opening night

It was a different world on Sept. 21, 1928, when the Fox first threw open its bronze doors.

Flashbulbs exploded as the swank and the swell poured from limousines crowding Woodward Avenue. Inside the six-story grand lobby, sequined and top-hatted patrons gaped, even as they do today, at towering red "marble" columns, ruby-eyed lions and a profusion of almost shameless gilt and glitter.

Detroit's great theater architect, C. Howard Crane -- he also built the Capitol, now the Detroit Opera House -- called his design a "tasteful blend of Hindoo and Burmese styles," though others later dubbed it "Siamese Byzantine" and even "Cambodian Gothic."

The film that played opening night was Fox Studio's "Street Angel" starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

Detroit Mayor John C. Lodge welcomed the audience, which was even more wowed a few moments later when the 60-piece Fox Grand Orchestra rose out of the floor on pneumatic pumps and launched into the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Later in the live program that preceded the film, the Tillerettes -- studio mogul William Fox's answer to the Rockettes -- thrilled guests with their high-stepping precision.

In its glory days, after the credits rolled on a Shirley Temple opening, the half-pint starlet herself would be lowered from the ceiling to tap out a number in the flesh.

Impressing the ladies

For generations of Detroiters, the Fox played a key role in life's most important moments.

As a 12-year-old swain, Chuck Forbes, who bought the Fox in the early 1980s, went there on his very first date.

"That was where you went if you wanted to impress a young lady," he said. "You'd have to be brain-dead not to be impressed!"

And like some beneficent fairy godmother, the Fox guaranteed David Voydanoff's successful passage into this life.

It was just two months after the theater's grand opening in 1928. Voydanoff's mother and father were watching "The Air Circus" when she unexpectedly went into labor. There followed a quick trip up the aisle and out to a midwife in Utica.

Not surprisingly, Voydanoff's a little grateful.

"I love that theater!" said the Algonac resident.

Survival threatened

But by the 1960s, suburban development and a host of new theaters across Eight Mile threatened the economic survival of downtown's great old movie houses.

"The Fox was particularly tough," said Shan Sayles, who worked for the local Paramount conglomerate half a century ago, and now owns a chain of California cinemas, "because it's one of the biggest theaters in the world.

"To fill 5,000 seats five times a day, you're talking a lot of people."

Decline set in with a vengeance.

While the Fox never closed for extended periods, wear and neglect left a heavy mark on the one-time jewel.

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas played the Fox routinely in the mid-'60s, part of Motown's "Motortown Revue," which temporarily brought life back to the theater with four shows a day. She recalls a soiled masterpiece.

"We had no idea those elephants were in there," Reeves said of the spectacular ornamentation, now restored to its lustrous gold, "because it was so dingy. Our little Mary Jane shoes used to get so dirty!"

On July 23, 1967, Reeves was just launching into her first live performance of the new hit, "Jimmy Mack," when somebody beckoned furiously from the wings.

"I thought, 'Oh God -- my dress must be unzipped,' " she said, "because that happened sometimes.

"But they said, 'There's a riot outside. And you've got to tell everybody to quietly go home and be careful.' "

Limping through the '70s

After the riots, Motown decamped for Los Angeles, and the Fox limped through the 1970s with a host of horror and Kung-fu flicks.

"Every night after the show, the auditorium reeked of urine and other disgusting things," recalls John M. Lauter of Farmington Hills.

He and a youthful band of theater guerrillas formed a nonprofit, the Friends of the Fox, to keep the immense Wurlitzer organ in decent repair, and to do what they could to stem the theater's rot.

When artifacts began disappearing -- a projectionist was rumored to be the go-to guy to buy a slice of 1928 splendor -- Lauter and Greg Bellamy, now the Fox's general manager, anchored whatever could be carted off with bolts requiring a specialized tool to release.

Hope began to displace despair in 1984, when theater developer Forbes -- who revived the State as well as the Gem and Century theatres -- bought the property.

"God only knows what would have happened if it hadn't been sold to him," said Michigan Opera Theatre's Hauser, who sits on the Theatre Historical Society of America board.

While Forbes was unable to put his renovation dreams into action, he kept the theater safe until Mike Ilitch swooped down from the suburbs and made the theater and its 10-story office building his new corporate headquarters.

"Many, many people thought we had lost our business marbles," daughter Denise said.

But the family had wanted to expand its downtown entertainment franchise, she explains, which already included the Red Wings. And, as she notes, her parents had grown up with the Fox.

Top-to-bottom renovation

The new owners immediately put in motion a top-to-bottom renovation. The result was a resurrection accomplished with 1 million gallons of water, scaffolding that cost $3,000 a day, and $750,000 in new plaster work.

Shortly after its November 1988 reopening, the Fox hosted a blockbuster event featuring Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli and Sammy Davis Jr.

And suddenly, at least in Lauter's imagination, it was 1928 all over again.

Lauter was pegged to play the lobby organ, its massive pipes looming over the front entrance, while the guests arrived. His head swam at the scene.

"Seeing beautifully dressed women getting out of limos, seeing the place sparkling clean and smelling like fresh paint," he said, pausing for a moment to consider the sad years of neglect and near-abandonment.

"Well," he added, "it was an emotional moment. It was the payoff. And it took Ilitch kind of money to make it happen."

You can reach Michael H. Hodges at (313) 222-6021 or mhodges@detnews.com.


Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News

"The Detroit Fox is the most spectacular, over-the-top movie palace ever built," says Ray Shepardson, the theater preservationist who oversaw the renovation.
Fox Theatre through time


Historic photos online

1927: Movie mogul William Fox launches construction of Fox Theatre and 10-story office building above it. By late 1920s, Fox owns 360 theaters worldwide.

Sept. 21, 1928: Grand opening, with film "Street Angel."

1932: Fox loses financial stake in all his theaters, declares bankruptcy four years later.

1941-45: During World War II, the Fox routinely grosses $75,000 a week on 35-cent admissions.

June 25, 1942: Benny Goodman and his orchestra perform with Peggy Lee.

May 1953: "The Robe" opens at the Fox, Michigan's first movie in CinemaScope.

May 25, 1956: Elvis Presley wows 12,500 screaming fans in three shows.

Nov. 16, 1964: Fox carries Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston heavyweight title bout on closed-circuit TV; tickets: $5.

1970s: Kung-fu and horror films predominate at the Fox.

1984: Theater developer Chuck Forbes buys property for $1 million.

1987: Little Caesars owners, the Ilitches, purchase Fox, launch $12.5 million renovation of theater.

Nov. 19, 1988: Restored Fox reopens with Smokie Robinson and the Count Basie Orchestra.

2002: Pollstar, an industry trade journal, ranks the Fox North America's "#1 theater," ahead of Radio City Music Hall, based on number of tickets sold.

Sept. 21, 2003: The Fox's 75th birthday. 

More Online

 View historic Fox Theatre photos, plus get additional history on the landmark venue.

Detroit News photo
For generations of Detroiters, the Fox played a key role in life's most important moments. But by the 1960s, suburban development and new theaters threatened its survival.
Detroit News photo

In its early days, the Fox was a profusion of almost shameless gilt and glitter. That glitter returned after the $12.5 million renovation that began in 1987.

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