How rock’n’roll turned a Detroit theatre into a parking garage

michigan theatre detroit01I was really excited about my find.

“It’s the most beautiful parking lot in the world,” I told a local journalist during my stay in Windsor, “and nobody even knows about it!”

“Everybody knows about it,” he said. He’s lived in the area for a long time.

Undaunted, I took the tunnel bus to Detroit on a sunshiny Sunday to get a peek at the most beautiful parking lot in the world.

I was half-expecting to have to be sneaky. I considered how I’d talk my way into being allowed to wander around a parking garage when my car was parked 800 kilometres away. I needn’t have worried.

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The Michigan Theatre—built on land that had housed Henry Ford’s garage and is therefore the birthplace of the automobile—opened in 1926. Attached to a 13-storey office building, the theatre’s lobby was a sweeping five storeys tall, lit with chandeliers reflected on 12-foot-high mirrors. It was capped with rose and gold frescoed ceilings and had arched walls upon which cherubs lazily witnessed the dawn of film. A Wurlitzer provided the soundtrack to choppy silent films.

The Bride of Frankenstein would have been screened there, and Snow White and Scarface. Bob Hope performed there. So did Duke Ellington and the Marx Brothers, thought not on the same night.

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I arrived a few hours before the start of a Detroit Lions football game. Parking lots across the city had started to fill up with trucks and barbecues and hot plates. Coolers full of drinks were appearing on tailgates. A older man smiled at me as I walked into the parking garage. I was open-mouthed, amazed, looking at the ceiling in delight.

“I used to go to movies here,” he told me. He was leaning on his black Ford pickup watching his hamburgers grill.

“What did you see?”

“Oh, man.” He paused, laughed a little, followed my gaze along the thick straight columns between which half the great mirrors had survived. “I saw Gone With the Wind here. The Best Years of Our Lives. It was different then.”

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They were the best years of the Michigan Theatre’s life, but decline was just around the corner.

Those mirrors reflected the light from the 10-foot chandeliers. While once they had shone on 4,000 theatre-goers, that number dwindled in the 1960s as families bought televisions and started staying home.

It had become “a castle of dreams and an ocean of seats,” the Detroit News Magazine wrote in 1968.

By the early 1970s, the theatre was lucky if it attracted 400 viewers. It unplugged the projector and locked the doors.

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It was dark for years. The shine came off the chandeliers. The carpets went unvacuumed and the banisters unpolished till a promoter had the genius idea to bring performance back to the theatre.

Music came back with a vengeance, but these weren’t Duke Ellington’s crowd. This was a different type of fan, lining up for Aerosmith and KISS and David Bowie.

And they weren’t sipping cocktails.

They were crushing beer cans in the corners, burning the carpets with cigarettes and worse, etching their names on the walls, even ripping the chairs from the floor.

They were a little too rock’n’roll for the theatre. By 1976, it was over.

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What had been designed to be “the great showplace of the middle west” would have been demolished had it not been a threat to the structural integrity of the building attached to it. Eventually the tenants of that building gave their landlord a whole new ultimatum: We need safe, close parking or we’re out of here.

The doors were unlocked. The floors were levelled. Concrete ramps were installed and soon office workers and—on the occasional Sunday—tailgaters moved in with their Fords and Chryslers and GM vehicles. Someone put in a basketball hoop.

“Nothing gobbles up history like parking,” HistoricDetroit’s Dan Austin told the BBC in 2011. He also noted: “The site of the automobile’s birthplace, replaced by a movie theatre, reclaimed by the automobile.”

Now that’s rock’n’roll.

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