Visitors in awe of Fox Theatre during Dem debates

Sarah Rahal Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Detroit —  The Democratic debates were in town this week and everyone can agree: The Fox Theatre, the venue for the gathering, was a spectacular site.

Those watching the debate inside and even protesters outside on Woodward Avenue shared stunning photos, saying the Fox is a beautiful setting, even if presidential primary candidates sparring inside agreed on little.

Visitors, journalists and candidates from around the country were floored by the theater, originally dubbed as "the most magnificent Temple of Amusement in the World," according to the Detroit Historical Society's website.

"It really is the most beautiful venue I’ve ever seen for these debates," said CNN's Chris Cuomo during his pre-debate coverage Wednesday. 

Workers get the stage ready for the Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

People shared photos showcasing the theater's lavish 10-story structure designed by C. Howard Crane. Through a bank of elegant brass doors and an outer foyer, 5,000 guests each day passed through 3,600 square feet and a six-story lobby before taking their seats in the auditorium.

Inside, ornamentation and decor designed by Eve Leo, William Fox’s wife, feature Egyptian, Indian and Byzantine motifs. The theater also boasts a 36-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Dave Glovsky has lived in East Lansing since moving from Massachusetts since 2013, but made his first visit to the theater this week saying, "It's like from a different era."

"A sort of classic, cinematic, theatrical era that I honestly didn’t know still existed in this country, that theaters like that are still around," Glovsky said.

Glovsky said the venue was a step up from the last debate he attended — a 2007 primary debate in a New Hampshire college auditorium. 

"It was obviously a very different environment," he said, noting Tuesday’s debate audience included a "cross-section of people in Michigan," not a student-heavy crowd. 

The Fox opened its doors in 1928. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In between, it featured films, bands and vocal groups, and was home to Benny Goodman and his band, and Berry Gordy's annual Motown Revue. 

When Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the Fox in 1987, they undertook a full renovation. In 2006, Ilitch Holdings announced the construction with the addition of the iconic Fox Theatre sign with LED lights and 18-foot letters that could be seen far down Woodward.

Beauty aside, there were practical considerations that went lacking inside the theater during the debate Tuesday, some said: The audience was given fair warning about the rules surrounding restroom visits, which were limited to commercial breaks, he said. 

Inside on Tuesday night, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee said it was about "12,000-degrees" where he was sitting, but he and other guests still marveled at the venue. 

"It was beautiful," he said. "I got the same reaction talking to people from elsewhere that I sometimes get when people come to Flint. They look around and they say, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I expected to see. It’s cool. This is a great asset.’ " 

Harper Woods native Penny Hurt-Saunders said the lack of food and water on the theater floor was difficult given the four-hour span during which audience members remained in their seats.

But she said she still appreciated the history of the venue.

"Showing one of Detroit’s finest things was really appropriate," Hurt-Saunders said. "It’s a jewel for Detroit."

Architect Gene Barber visited the Fox once before attending the debates and was caught off guard by the heat but the Grosse Pointe Farms resident said the entry and exit from the event was organized and ran smoothly.

"It gives you a lot to look at while you’re waiting," he said. "It’s fascinating to look at the amount of detail (of the theater)."

The Fox Theatre itself appreciated all the online love, tweeting "We think so!" to remarks about how beautiful it was.

Meanwhile, outside the venue Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of protesters packed both sides of Woodward Avenue, marching and rallying downtown as members of the Detroit police and fire departments block off the street for the debates.

Detroit police Chief James Craig praised his officers for keeping the peace between members of protest groups that converged downtown until 22 demonstrators were arrested for blocking the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

Detroit News Staff Writers George Hunter and Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_