Fox renovation sets stage for entertainment revival

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Beyond his involvement in Detroit sports, Mike Ilitch left an indelible mark on the city’s entertainment scene.

The Fox Theater marque reads " a life well lived" in tribute to Mike Ilitch on Saturday February 11, 2017.

Dozens of concerts and family shows a year fall underneath the umbrella of Olympia Entertainment, the entertainment arm of his company that manages Joe Louis Arena, the Fox Theatre, the City Theatre (inside Hockeytown Cafe) and Comerica Park.

Olympia Entertainment was launched in 1982, the year Michael and Marian Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings. At the time, Olympia — then called Olympia Arenas Inc. — was the management company for events at Joe Louis Arena, Cobo Arena and the Glen Falls Civic Center in Glen Falls, NY. The company took on the name Olympia Entertainment in 1996.

The Fox is where the Ilitch’s impact was felt the deepest. The 5,000-seat former movie palace, which opened in 1928, had fallen into disrepair when the Ilitches purchased it from Chuck Forbes in 1987 and moved Little Caesars’ headquarters into the office building attached to the theater.

The Ilitches launched a $12.5 million renovation of The Fox in 1988, restoring the massive theater to its 1920s luster, spending $3,000 a day in scaffolding costs, $750,000 in new plaster work and using 1 million gallons of water to hose down several decades worth of dirt and grime from the building’s floors and walls.

The theater reopened in November 1988, and that month hosted concerts by Smokey Robinson with the Count Basie Orchestra and a show with Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.

The message was clear: Entertainment was back in a big way in downtown Detroit.

Restored Fox Theatre auditorium in 1991.

“The re-opening of The Fox started giving people who had left Detroit a reason to come back downtown, other than to watch a sporting event or to sit on Santa’s lap at Hudson’s,” says Dave Clark, the vice president of marketing at Live Nation Detroit. “Between his investments in the sports teams and the Fox Theater, (Ilitch) was the original catalyst for Detroit’s comeback.”

The Fox, which turns 88 this year, is still looked at as the best of the Fox Theatres, and the Fox Theatres are generally regarded as the best theaters in the country. (There are also Fox Theatres in Atlanta, St. Louis and Oakland, California; Fox buildings in San Francisco and Brooklyn were met with wrecking balls.)

The Fox played an indispensable role in the revival of Detroit’s downtown. It brought people to the city, and those people would come down early and eat or stay late and get a drink, little things that eventually help to build a thriving entertainment district.

Those efforts were furthered by the building of Comerica Park, the Hockeytown Cafe and soon Little Caesars Arena, which will open in September 2017.

“It was Mike at the start of the revival, and now he’s here at the end of it with Little Caesars Arena,” says Jonathan Witz, an event producer who has worked with the Ilitch family over the years and once ran Clubland, now the Fillmore Detroit, which is next door to The Fox.

“Downtown continues to burst at the seams, and it’s been an amazing thing to watch. Illitch started it, he nurtured it, and now he’s the candle on the cake at the end of it.”

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