Players Detroit boasts century-long amateur theater run

All-male acting fraternity carries on tradition that dates to 1911 in elegant building on Jefferson

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

The two-story English Renaissance building at 3321 E. Jefferson in Detroit looks elegant inside and out. Dating to 1926, it’s a testament to the great architects and artisans of that decade, several of whom had a hand in its creation.

Above the entryway, a name is chiseled — THE PLAYERS — near a Michigan historic site plaque.

It’s the clubhouse of the Players Detroit, a men’s amateur theater group that’s now in its 106th year. The Players clubhouse is still used and enjoyed in the same way it has been for 91 years, a tradition that predates the building: The Players put on one-act plays they call “frolics” and, as they have always done, don tuxedos on performance nights.

Players Detroit was incorporated in 1911, at a time when two cultural trends were popular across the country: Men’s fraternal clubs were everywhere, and amateur theater groups were found in many large American cities. The most famous theater clubs were the Players in New York City, founded by legendary actor Edwin Booth in 1888, and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, founded in 1872.

The audience sits at small tables in the theater, which seats 150. Long vertical paintings by artist Paul Honore hang on the walls of the auditorium.

Many of these groups focused on light-hearted, short works. The Players members still write many of the plays, design and build the sets, create the costumes, and act in all roles, including the female roles.

David Clark, current president of Players Detroit, acknowledges that an all-male theater club is a rarity in today’s world. “It’s a long tradition that dates back to our founding and we uphold it,” he said. “More directly, members find socializing only with men puts them at ease and makes the club a relaxed and comfortable place to be.”

Their season runs from October to May, in which three one-act plays are presented before members on one night each month, with the best selected to be performed later for the general public in what are called “invitationals.” November’s invitational is already sold out. The reputation of the quality of the productions makes getting a ticket for the invitationals, even for members of the club, sometimes difficult. Due to the tables and chairs in the auditorium, the seating is limited to 175 people.

Comedic beginnings

The Players began when vaudeville and theater were the primary entertainment venues in Detroit. According to Ed Priebe, spokesman and historian for the group, theaters were everywhere because Detroit was a city where professional productions were staged and tested before heading to Broadway.

“A group in Detroit called the Comedy Club was formed in 1880, and was very popular,” he said, “performing for 30 years before breaking up in 1910.” Six members of the Comedy Club used the money remaining in their treasury to form the Players Detroit. “Most of that money was used to rent facilities to put on productions,” Priebe said.

Fifteen years later, one of the charter members, Maxwell Grylls, of the prominent architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, agreed to have his firm design and build a home for the Players. He selected a young, energetic architect who recently joined his firm to take on the Players’ clubhouse. His name was William E. Kapp, who later in his career would design the Detroit Historical Museum, the Rackham Building on University of Michigan campus, Music Hall and Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester.

Kapp was remembered by members as thin, tall, very friendly and enthusiastic about the design and construction of the building. He would stand on the property, his arms loaded with drawings and blueprints, to show members and others what they would soon see rising up on Jefferson Avenue. One of those charcoal drawings hangs proudly above the fireplace of the main members’ meeting hall. Kapp would later join the Players, and for 10 years produced nearly 200 set designs for plays.

In addition to architect Kapp, well-known artists such as Italian-American sculptor Corrado Parducci and French trained Detroit artist Paul Honoré contributed to the red-brick building, which was completed in 1926 at the cost of $75,000.

Impressive interior

The exterior design includes a red tiled roof and three round arched windows framed with a wrought-iron balcony. Near the roofline are 10 sculpted faces created by Parducci. Over the entrance on the front facade, Parducci also created the limestone arch and the dramatic mask that is the club’s symbol.

But it is inside where this clubhouse most impresses. The theater interior is two stories high, but like a nightclub it is filled with small round cocktail tables and chairs. Along the walls are six large, brilliantly colored Art Deco murals by Honoré that depict a traveling troupe of troubadours. From the ceiling hang European-style banners that symbolically depict the different groups that go into producing live theater.

The wrought-iron railings and light fixtures were either hand made in Detroit or purchased by members in Europe. One of the members in the early 1920s went on a Grand Tour across Europe and brought back most of the iron hardware for the doors, the lights in the Grand Hall, the scones in the foyer, and the chandeliers in the Founder’s Room.

Ceiling beams are natural wood and hand decorated in the Arts and Crafts style. On either side of the large stage are two enormous urns produced by Parducci. The urns hold sand but also the ashes of the mortgage of the paid-off building, and even the ashes of some very devoted albeit deceased club members.

The stage is large with natural maple flooring and trapdoors used in some productions. The Players once had a full orchestra and produced musicals. In the 1960s Mel Brooks gave the Players permission to stage his musical farce “The Producers” before it opened on Broadway. A song from one Players’ musical — “When Day Is Done” — became the club’s theme song and is sung by all at the close of a show.

The building was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1985, and in 1987 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

No talent required

On this night a few members are in the club to rehearse for a show. Allan Dick, a club member for 42 years, is in one of the frolics and will play guitar in the other two that night.

“It’s a cross between a college fraternity and amateur theater group,” says Dick, an insurance underwriter by trade. “I had no acting experience at all. My closest friend’s father was a member of Players so my friend would come down to the club and bring his friends, including myself. I really liked it so I stayed. Some members are quality actors, others are decent, but most are like me, with no talent. But they throw you in there and I got more comfortable on stage and gained confidence.”

Dick says that club membership is comprised of men from all over southeast Michigan. He adds, “Mostly middle class, middle aged white men, but we’re working on that.”

A quote by William Shakespeare -- "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" -- is written above the entrance to the spiral staircase.

Standing nearby is another member who travels to Detroit from Chelsea, John L. Daly. Daly has been a member for 39 years and co-authored the three frolics they are rehearsing this night, each 20-25 minutes long.

These particular plays are linked in subject and titled “Thunderbird,” “Frontier Accountant,” and “Wasting Away.” Daly explains, “The frolics are about three U of M business school grads (two men and one woman, played by a man) who are graduating and entering the real world.”

Daly owns a company called Executive Education, which provides executive development seminars in the U.S. and overseas.

“I got into the Players back in 1978,” he says. “I was working late one night with a colleague and I asked him if he was going home and he said no, he was going to his club for a drink first. He invited me to come with him and I fell in love with this place,” Daly said.

“As the club tradition dictates, I had to perform one month after I joined and the script was so terrible I thought it was a set-up, some kind of initiation punishment. I was on stage with six others and after all these years four are still members, one died and another had to move for his job. That says a lot.”

Daly adds, “This is strictly amateur. Out of 185 members only six are professionals who do supper theater and such.”

Sean Fisher, an electrical contractor, was hired in 2011 to rewire some of the building. He was intrigued by the club. “All the beautiful artwork and the guys were great here, so I decided to join,” he says.

A bit younger than the others, Fisher thought “I could help build sets for the plays. I also do construction.

“But when you join you get your ‘rookie play.’ When you get cast you don’t know what you’ll be. I was in ‘Serial Killer Barbie.’ I was a blond Barbie. The brunette Barbie, jealous of the blonds, was the killer. It was fun but I got a lot of whistles when I stepped on stage, which threw me off,” he laughs.

“I love it. I bring friends in to get them to join. Every year I play Schroeder in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” a play the club puts on for members’ children and grandchildren.

“At the end of the year we have the Willie Awards, which is actually a roast of everybody for their mistakes, like dropped lines, tripping on stage and such. I got one. When I was supposed to toss a ball to another character in our play I threw it too high and hard and it hit a light and stopped the play for a moment.”

Repairs always needed

For all the fun the members have, the building is always in need of repairs. Above the stage the ceiling soars to four stories to handle the rise of curtains and scene sets. But the stage rigging is old and hemp ropes and pulleys are in regular need of replacement. The building needs a new roof, and a rusted-out water tank and system was recently replaced at $250,000. Expenses to maintain the building are high, so the Players rent out the space to other theater groups, such as the Fine Arts Society of Detroit and the Theater Arts Society of Detroit. They also rent the club to business groups holding meetings, and for weddings on the weekends.

That still does not cover all expenses, so the Players are seeking a grant to help, and have several generous donors. They anticipate reaching their $1 million goal in a year or more.

Along with the auditorium, the building holds a commercial kitchen (no longer used), a balcony with a computer-based stage lighting panel, dressing rooms, prop rooms and a formal meeting room on the second floor where every member receives his own personalized ceramic beer stein. Mugs of deceased members are displayed on a high shelf in remembrance.

While membership will likely never reach the high of 400 members in the 1920s, they have seen an uptick and are now at 185. Using Facebook and other social media is attracting younger members.

Jim Turnbull, a Players member for 38 years, leads tours of the building. To schedule a tour, make sure you are not calling the Players Lounge on Eight Mile, which is a strip club.

“That happens,” laughs club historian Priebe.

Public performances

November’s Invitational for the public on Nov. 3-4 and 10-11 are sold out. Other Invitationals will be scheduled in May 2018. Ticket prices are $35. The dress code for the audience is black tie or dark business suits for men and cocktail attire for women.

For information, call (313) 259-3385. http://www.playersdetroit.org/