Share this article

print logo

A theater so memorable that it’s worth the trip to Detroit

Western New Yorkers dazzled by Shea’s Performing Arts Center should fill up the tank and head to downtown Detroit.

The cavernous Fox Theatre awaits in all of its lavish and overwhelming splendor.

It’s hard to miss: The theater has a seven-story tall, double-barreled sign proclaiming “FOX” above the marquee, and its neo-Gothic and Art Deco facade. The theater is in a 10-story steel frame office building, with a cream-colored terra cotta exterior, that commands a full city block.

The motion picture mecca, designed by C. Howard Crane, was built at 2211 Woodward Ave. in 1928 for William Fox and the 20th-Century Fox theater chain. The studio mogul owned 360 theaters by the end of the decade, and the Detroit Fox was the most spectacular of the five grandest, with the others in St. Louis, Atlanta, Brooklyn and San Francisco. The Detroit theater was also the largest surviving movie palace from the late 1920s, the golden age of movie theaters.

Just how big is it? The Fox Theatre has 5,048 permanent seats, By comparison, Shea’s seats 3,019.

The size captures one’s attention, but it’s the ornate grandeur these picture palaces were known for that really amazes.

The Fox Theatre is an ostentatious mash-up of Far Eastern influences, with Chinese, Persian, Hindu, Indian and Burmese motifs. Gold, red and brown, with an unexpected touch of mint green, are in abundance.

The six-story grand lobby features two rows of eight decorative, red Corinthian scagliola columns. Ruby-eyed lions perch at the entrance to a grand stairway, above a wide terrazzo floor with brass inlays, and below a blue ceiling with a sunburst scene and griffins.

The theater’s proscenium is adorned with flowers, starbursts and animals. The side walls include Moorish arches and, on the colonnade, orange and gold scagliola columns. The ceiling boasts an oculus against a blue background supported by spears, and a chandelier of colored glass, suspended from a starburst design.

The sheer scale of the theater is overwhelming. It’s possible to imagine the early house staff of some 400 doormen, ushers, projectionists and others flinging open the doors to a grandeur previously reserved for royalty.

The Fox Theater had a lot of firsts in its day, including being the first movie theater with escalators and elevators, and to have built-in film sound equipment.

Live shows combined with movies over the years, with Elvis Presley, Berry Gordy’s annual Motown Revue and the Benny Goodman Big Band among the performers. The theater fell into decline by the mid-1970s, like most of the surviving movie palaces, due to a battered economy and declining population, but rebounded a decade later under new ownership.

In 1988, the theater underwent a $12.5 million restoration, more than double the $5 million it cost to build it on the cusp of the Great Depression.

It was carried out under the new ownership of Mike Ilitch and wife, Marian, owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza and storied sports franchises the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings. Their endeavors came after another owner, theater developer Chuck Forbes, put the theater on the path to recovery.

The theater was designated a National Historic Landmark the following year, the nation’s highest preservation ranking.

This summer, the 87-year-old theater’s giant marquee, flanked by 14-foot-tall griffins, was overhauled and given digital lighting and new neon glass tubing.

The theater, which still retains an original Wurlitzer organ, has a large stage that accommodates Broadway traveling shows and concerts.

Fillmore Detroit (formerly the State Theater), another concert hall, is just one block away, and other theaters and performance centers are nearby. So, too, are Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, and Ford Field, home of the Lions.

Tours: Group tours last about 45 minutes and are available weekdays by appointment on non-event days. The cost is $10. Call (313) 471-3099 to make a reservation. If there isn’t a tour, employees have been known to show people around anyway.

Getting around: The Detroit People Mover follows a 2.9-mile, single-track loop around the city with 13 stops. Cost: 75 cents.

How to go: The quickest route is taking the QEW through Canada (403 W, followed by 401 W) to the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. The distance is 260 miles; estimated time is 4 hours, 8 minutes.

email: msommer@buffnews.com