Rubin: For Palace and Joe, beauty is inside

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

One was born a dump and the other was, well, a Palace.

Stadium mascot Al the Octopus works up a hatred for the Dallas Stars as fans gather for a playoff game at The Joe in 2008.

For 67 years between them, Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills were awash in cheers and the smell of spilled beer. Now the teams that defined them are leaving, and all we’ll be left with are memories — which, what the heck, is how it’s supposed to work.

We’ll remember Karen Newman, for instance, performing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Joe Louis more than a thousand times and a few dozen times more at The Palace. She’ll remember her twins, 15 now, playing as tiny kids in the snow pile collected by the Zamboni while she tried to simultaneously watch them and the game.

Whatever their designs, arenas and stadiums become giant shells built to hold experiences. To a large extent, says University of Detroit Mercy architecture professor Noah Resnick, our enjoyment of them “has nothing whatsoever to do with aesthetics” — which is good.

Palace worker Shannon Sailes does a birthday dance for Gwynneth McClintic, 4, this month as the clock ticked on the Pistons’ time in Auburn Hills.

The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups while residing at the drab, drafty Joe, scenically located next to a river you couldn’t see from inside the building. The Pistons and Shock each won three championships at The Palace, easily accessible from anywhere in the Metro area as long as you own a helicopter.

To get to Joe Louis, we usually hiked through a urine-scented hamster maze or climbed 35 steep, snowy steps. At The Palace, we paid $20 to park half a mile from the entrance. We showed up anyway because chances were that something unforgettable was inside.

Across the decades, millions of rumps occupied a combined 40,000 seats to watch hockey and hoops and arena football and rodeo. Between the two buildings, there were New York Rangers and Power Rangers, Cirque du Soleil and the Ringling Brothers circus, and Every Conceivable Disney Character on Ice.

Come next season, the Wings will head slightly north and the Pistons will head considerably south to the same location, Little Caesars Arena. In one of the final echoes of bankruptcy and the Grand Bargain, the city will essentially turn Joe Louis over to a bill collector. The Palace has events scheduled through a Sept. 8 concert with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and its fate is theoretically undetermined, but the smart money says to bet the wrecking ball and lay the points.

Memorable moments

Neither building is as universally beloved as Tiger Stadium, where a sellout crowd always meant some people were sitting behind I-beams and others were jammed halfway into one. No one has organized group hugs for the arenas.


But it was Joe Louis where a marketing consultant from Farmington Hills gave Alice Cooper a boa constrictor, and it was The Palace where public address announcer Ken Calvert became so nationally renowned for saying “Joe DUUUmars!” that he heard himself insulted in a bathroom in Chicago.

It was Joe Louis where dental office manager Tiffany Barnhart of Lake Orion brought her son to a concert and came full circle with her mother. And it could have been either where Chrysler salesman Byron Savage of Southfield found himself caught up in a sport he only marginally understood.

As a 13-year-old discovering rock ’n’ roll, Barnhart once asked her mother if she’d heard of the Beatles. As a 35-year-old, she couldn’t help but recall that conversation a few months ago when her son Austin asked if she’d ever heard of Green Day.

She and Austin, 15, were rocking in the upper bowl at the Green Day concert March 27 when the band broke into “Hey Jude.” That quickly, she was 13 again.

Savage, 56, says he’ll be a regular for Pistons games at the new downtown arena. He doesn’t speak fluent hockey, but he was invited to a company suite to watch the Red Wings probably 15 years ago.

“I didn’t think I would get into it,” he says, “but I lost my voice at that game.”

That’s the camaraderie of a big event. The commonality. The cacophony.

“Since Roman times,” says Resnick, the UDM professor, sports and the like “have allowed people to escape from their lives and focus on someone else’s performance. They enter into those buildings and they exit the problems of the city.”

As structures, The Joe and The Palace were nine years and one philosophy apart.

Search for Joe Louis Arena on the website of what’s now SmithGroupJJR, its distinguished 164-year-old architect, and you get a failure note that says, “We’re sorry, but something went wrong.”

Actually, Resnick says, it’s exactly what the time and place called for. In 1979, Detroit and many other cities had not yet realized riverfronts were assets, and arenas were “big, giant sheds where the goal was to cram in as many people as you could.”

The Palace came along from Rossetti in 1988 as one of the first to emphasize luxury suites and hospitality — “a complete Disney experience,” Resnick says, “where everything was about marketing and control.”

The Pistons won NBA titles in their first two seasons there, and Calvert’s deep, mellow voice became part of the soundtrack of national television broadcasts.

His occasional playfulness set the stage for successor John Mason, who weaved his job into the fabric of the game and inspired a league-wide courtside revolution.

Calvert would find himself chatting with Michael Jordan as the NBA’s best player waited to check into games — “Man, you’re playing well.” “Thanks. Everything good with you?” — and was at Chicago Stadium just for fun when a local fan loudly told a friend, “You know who I can’t stand is that guy in Detroit who says ‘Joe Dumars.’ ”

Calvert turned back at the door and unleashed a rousing, “Ladies and gentleman, No. 4 ...” Then he bought the fan a beer.

Snake on a stage

Michael Isabella was the promotions director at what was then WLLZ-FM when he saw a story in The Detroit News about a young Macomb County man whose boa constrictor had slithered afoul of a local ordinance.

Alice Cooper switched his act up after being introduced to a boa constrictor when he came to play The Joe.

“Alice Cooper’s coming to town,” Isabella thought. “He might need a snake.”

Need is a relative term, but it turned out Cooper was willing to accept it, and Isabella brought the owner and the rocker together backstage at Joe Louis for the bestowing of the reptile. Years later, when Isabella was local sales manager at WCSX-FM, Cooper came through for a meet-and-greet.

“I absolutely remember that,” Cooper told him. “We had that snake for a long time. He was in the act.”

Newman’s act began with a performance of the National Anthem at a tennis tournament. That led to a 27-year spot with the Red Wings and a perpetual case of nerves: “If people could be inside my head, they would freak out.”

When she started, she was a receptionist and makeup artist at her future ex-husband’s hair salon. Today she’s a full-time singer who has toured as a back-up vocalist with Bob Seger and Kid Rock.

Her first show with Seger, she was behind him as he walked up the steps at the back of the stage. He paused at the top and she saw him in silhouette, milking the moment as the Silver Bullet Band began to play and the crowd roared.

“It would have been a great closing scene for a movie,” she says.

Or an arena. Or two of them.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn