March 27, 2007 at 1:00 am

Woodward: Avenue of escape

From jazz clubs to dance halls, Woodward had it all

Joe Zainea credits the bachelors.

They mostly worked at Burroughs, General Motors Corp. or one of the downtown banks, and on Monday mornings in the 1940s they would arrive at Detroit's East Grand Boulevard train station from the suburbs and stash their bags in tiny hotel rooms. After work each night, they tore up the town, hitting the clubs, ballrooms, bowling alleys and taxi-dance halls. "I can't tell you how busy they made Woodward," said Zainea, whose family owns the Majestic Theatre complex. "Without a doubt, this was one of the busiest areas in the Midwest. We were jammed because this area had so much employment."

Detroit was hopping, and anyone who could crawl, walk or jump on a streetcar to Woodward Avenue was in for a night of revelry. With dozens of auto companies in production, the teens and 1920s were prosperous years on Woodward, a time when Grand Circus Park was ringed with new movie theaters and a slew of ballrooms opened, driven by the national fox trot craze.

The Graystone Ballroom at Woodward and Canfield was the cradle of Detroit jazz. Like all Detroit dance halls, it was segregated, with Mondays set aside for blacks, although most of the top orchestras like McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Leroy Smith's Orchestra were themselves all-black.

"It was the place to go dance," said Lars Bjorn, co-author of "Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit."

"Detroit jazz was played for dancers, largely."

Detroiters flocked there to sip soft drinks and two-step amid the marble splendor, but jazz buffs were attracted by the syncopated rhythms, with the hot jazz of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and McKinney's drawing national attention. If you were alive and near Detroit in the '20s, you might have been lucky enough to fox trot to the music of jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke, who blew the cornet with the Goldkette house orchestra for parts of 1924, 1926 and 1927.

A teenage Benny Goodman drove all night just to get to the Graystone to see Beiderbecke play, Goodman told The Detroit News in a 1974 interview.

"It was a great mecca in those days," clarinetist Goodman said of Detroit. "Some of the great jazz musicians have come from Detroit."

Goodman played some stellar shows on Woodward himself. In February 1938, he frisked the jitterbugs' whiskers with a show at the Fox Theatre, then returned in September to the Michigan State Fair to play for 3,200 gyrating dancers.

Crowds flock to wartime diversions

The 1940s were a lively but tense decade, with wartime overcrowding. When workers clocked out of the factories, they flocked to Woodward's restaurants, 24-hour movie theaters and all-night bowling alleys. The hotshots went to Casino Recreation to bowl and carouse, and the Garden Bowl pulled in the working people.

Saturday night meant the Canadians were coming. "Blue laws" ordered Windsor bars closed at 11:30 p.m. By midnight, Canadians would be riding the tunnel bus to Detroit, where they would hop a Woodward streetcar and travel up to the swinging north end.

"They would raise holy hell, go into the taxi-hall dances," Zainea said. "Then on Sunday morning they would end up back in Windsor and go to church, saying, 'I'm never going back to that Sin City.' But they were back the next week."

Segregation of the races didn't happen at the Paradise Theater, which booked black acts and welcomed black audiences. A growing number of white teenagers came as the '40s wore on.

Beatrice Buck of Detroit was 10 years old when Duke Ellington and his orchestra opened the Paradise in December 1941.

"Every day, every time they opened the door, I was there," Buck said with a laugh. "Oh, it was my main place, my main stomping ground."

The doorman, Harold West, would let kids like Buck sneak in even if they didn't have the money, warning them to be quiet and stay in the back.

"Lucky Millinder always had a little dice thing he jumped on," Buck recalled. "The very first time I saw Fats Waller he scared me, he was always making eyes, making faces. They always had a dancer, maybe Peg Leg Bates, who danced on one leg, the Nicholas Brothers or Sammy Davis Jr. Oh, it does my heart and soul good to remember the Paradise Theater."

Alberta Adams was just a teenager when she sang at the Paradise Theater.

"We had entertainment then," Adams said. "We had a whole show: An emcee, the band, then we had a shake dancer, a tap dancer, chorus girls, a singer, then the chorus would come back out, and the tap dancer. Then the lead singer, who would come from out of town."

Nightclubs, R&B shake things up

The 1950s saw the ballrooms falter with the rise of nightclubs and a surge in rhythm and blues, although Detroit's jazz club scene still thrived. Large venues like the Graystone started to book more R&B shows featuring acts like Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John, as well as record hops by disc jockeys like "Frantic" Ernie Durham.

Singer Gino "Gino is a Coward" Washington recalls the Woodward/Canfield/Alexandrine area as still an entertainment hub into the early '60s. The Village club on Alexandrine, around the corner from the Graystone, was the after-hours hangout where acts like Wilson would sing all night after a gig.

Teenagers like Washington, young Billy Levise (later, Mitch Ryder), Bob Seger, Nathaniel Mayer and Ted Nugent could get in because the Village served hot chocolate and coffee, not liquor, although they had to sneak out of their homes to be there so late.

"The Village stayed open all night, and all the entertainers would meet there," Washington said. "That's how I learned, by watching the other entertainers at the Village."

After jamming all night, the young musicians would head down Woodward to the Top Hat and end the evening with a bag of hamburgers.

Theater district reels 'em in

In the 1960s, Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motortown Revues were packing the Fox Theatre every Christmas season. It was a symbolic achievement for Gordy when he bought the Graystone, intending to bring it back as a major venue. That didn't happen, although many famous Motown parties were held there over the years.

It was in the 1920s that the theaters of Grand Circus Park took business away from the old 19th-century theaters of lower Woodward, and the area reigned supreme for almost 50 years, with cinemas like the Madison, Adams, Grand Circus, Telenews and United Artists packing in moviegoers well into the 1960s. Soon, though, the aging movie houses were booking kung fu flicks and even porn. But in the late '70s and into the '80s, with the renovation of the State and Fox theaters, the area started to perk up again.

There were "underground" shows at the Majestic Theatre, and acts like Was (Not Was) and The Clash shook the old rafters at the Madison and Grand Circus. The State and the Fox were in full concert mode by the '80s.

The Majestic Theatre and the Magic Stick (above the Garden Bowl) served as a nexus for the Detroit music boom of the late '90s and beyond, hosting early shows by the White Stripes, the Von Bondies and Blanche.

"People don't realize the history," Zainea said. "You want to bring Woodward back? Link up downtown Detroit to Pontiac with some kind of transport, a people mover, if you want to elevate it. Put it down the middle of Woodward."

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com.

Joe Zainea, 73, whose family owns the Majestic Theater complex, recalls ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Jitterbugging at the State Fair in 1939 (The Detroit News archives)
Jitterbugging at the State Fair in 1939 (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
McKinney's Cotton Pickers in Baltimore, 1934
A pedometer shows 10 miles of dancing, an average night's work, Feb. 8, ...
McKinney's Cotton Pickers in Baltimore, 1934