Music Hall celebrates 90th birthday with historic gallery
No other theater in Detroit can claim as many acts as Music Hall, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this weekend.
To mark the occasion, the storied house is opening the Music Hall Gallery Archive on Monday. It's a small museum on the fifth floor, with a timetable guaranteed to dazzle, nifty high-tech Meural Canvas info screens, and historic artifacts and vitrines filled with posters and playbills.
"I'm giddy!" said Music Hall's irrepressible president and artistic director, Vince Paul. "It's like Christmas!"
The gallery archive will be open to the public — and free — weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and for all evening shows.
Music Hall first threw open its doors on Dec. 9, 1928, as the Wilson Theatre, with the Florenz Ziegfeld production of "Rosalie." The intimate hall, just 1,700 seats, was progressive from the start, founded and funded as it was by Matilda Dodge Wilson, widow of auto baron John Dodge.
William Kapp, the same architect who built her Rochester Hills mansion, Meadow Brook, designed Matilda's new downtown theater.
In its near-century, Music Hall has donned any number of costumes. It started life as a Ziegfeld playhouse, and then became home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1939-1953.
The name changed when Wilson sold the theater in 1944. The new owner installed broadcasting equipment, and for years the "Ford Sunday Evening Hour" featured the DSO on the radio, coast to coast.
The DSO was followed by a successful run as only the second, wide-screen Cinerama theater in North America, helping to launch a national trend.
"I remember coming as a kid in 1965 to see 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' " said Michael Hauser, who wrote the book "Detroit's Downtown Movie Palaces" in 2006 with Marianne Weldon.
"Seeing a movie on a huge, curved screen with surround sound?" he asked. "That was a special event."
Cinerama eventually gave way to the Michigan Opera Theatre, which was born there, followed by, among others, playwright and comedian Tyler Perry, who created his classic character Medea on the Music Hall stage.
"Tyler Perry got famous here," Paul said. "Every black person in Detroit would know, but almost nobody else."
Step back for a second and consider some of the other celebrities who've performed on its fabled stage:
Bette Davis and Burt Bacharach. Eddie Cantor and Eddie Izzard. Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Chaka Khan, Count Basie, Little Richard, Buster Keaton and Ella Fitzgerald.
Lucille Ball, starring in "Dream Girl," famously fell into the orchestra pit in 1947.
"She was the fourth performer to fall in," Paul said.
Protective netting, quite sensibly, was installed shortly thereafter.
Music Hall also hosted a number of Midwestern movie premieres. "Gone with the Wind" opened at Music Hall in 1940, with reserved seating.
And in 1941, Hauser said, it was one of a dozen or so theaters around the country picked to host Disney's "Fantasia."
"The theater actually closed for a week so RCA could install early surround sound," he said, "which they called 'Fantasound' for that picture."
Music Hall's gallery archives was pulled together from thousands of posters, fliers, ticket stubs and programs, haphazardly filed in a small, jammed room also on the fifth floor — a treasure trove that, thankfully, nobody thought to clean out and pitch.
Remarkably, the entertaining timeline — which covers an entire, long wall — only took several months for Julie Gervais, the hall's director of capacity building, to pull together.
"I began in late summer," she said. "It was a huge project. I didn't know what I was getting into."
But sorting through the memorabilia stretching over 90 years, she was struck by what she called "the heartbeat of the place," as well as how cosmopolitan Detroit has always been as an artistic city.
Music Hall's longevity and survival also impressed her, despite almost falling victim to the wrecking ball in 1974. (Happily, city officials changed their mind.)
"All along the way, it's come down to Music Hall's leadership," she said, "a succession of people who picked up the baton from Matilda, felt what was special about this house, and how to click in with the changing times."
Music Hall Archive Gallery
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, and during evening shows
350 Madison, Detroit