Thursday, May 9, 2013

What? There's live theater in Detroit?

The following is from 2013 - my first column for The Metropolitan, a monthly newspaper distributed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and other select outlets. Publisher and editor Anthony Brancaleone contacted me a handful of months ago and asked for a regular column that would promote Metro Detroit's professional theaters to visitors to (and residents of) the region - and I gladly agreed.

For my initial column, I introduce the concept that there is indeed professional theater in Detroit - and lots of it - focusing on the producing and presenting theaters that have facilities of their own. You can probably guess the direction of future columns.

I was going to delete the column, but after re-reading it, it pretty much still applies today (although the landscape has changed a bit in the intervening years). So here goes...

What? There's live theater in Detroit?
Yes, and plenty of it: A quick overview of professional theater venues in the Motor City
If someone asked you to name America's top cities to see a professional play or musical, the number one response would have to be New York – or Broadway, which to many people is the same thing. (Why else GO to New York?) The second would likely be Chicago, which is a popular destination spot for those in Middle America who are looking for quality shows at affordable prices. Theatrical connoisseurs might also identify Minneapolis, Louisville and Cleveland, each of which figures prominently in the national arts scene.

But Detroit? Really?

Yes, Detroit. Because within its 143 square miles sit not only two major Broadway touring houses, but also more than two dozen venues both large and small where theatergoers can experience live stage shows – most of which are home to dozens of non-profit producing theaters. So yes, one of the best kept secrets outside Southeast Michigan is that Detroit – known today mostly for its sports teams, auto companies and urban decay – has one of the largest theater districts in the country. And, we like to believe, one of the most creative.

The top dog on Detroit's theatrical food chain is the Fisher Theatre in the city's New Center neighborhood, managed by Broadway in Detroit. Part of the Nederlander empire, the Fisher Theatre opened as a movie and vaudeville house in 1928 and was remodeled in 1961 – and for 50-plus years has served as a major stop for national tours of hot Broadway shows.

Much of the city's theater activity, however, is found in three nearby neighborhoods.

A short drive (or a healthy walk) south of New Center is Midtown, home of the Hilberry Theatre (Wayne State University's acclaimed graduate theater program) and the impressive Masonic Temple (with more than 1,000 rooms, galleries and theaters).

But that's not all. Venues such as the General Motors Theatre inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, The Furniture Factory, the Majestic, the Detroit Film Theatre inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Orchestra Hall (home of the internationally renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra) provide a valuable service by offering their facilities to numerous performance troupes that don't have a space of their own.

Take Woodward Avenue south a few miles – that's the main drag that theoretically divides the east and west sides of the city – and you'll encounter the Foxtown Entertainment District, where the gorgeous Fox Theatre reigns. Built in 1928 and beautifully restored in 1987-88 by new owners Michael and Marian Ilitch, the Fox Theatre anchors a neighborhood that includes the City Theatre (like the Fox, another Olympia Entertainment property), The Filmore (which books mostly music acts) and The Elizabeth Theater (a small, black box theater above the Park Bar).

But the heart of the city's theater district is found in a historic section of Downtown Detroit. Anchored by the Detroit Opera House (home of the internationally acclaimed Michigan Opera Theatre) and Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (built in 1928 and the only Detroit venue built for the primary purpose of presenting live performances), this once-mostly neglected or abandoned neighborhood returned to life when local entrepreneur Chris Jaszczak moved onto Broadway Street in 1979 and opened a storefront black box theater space called 1515 Broadway in 1987. He was soon joined by Dr. David DiChiera of MOT, who led the charge to restore the neglected Grand Circus Theatre across the street. Purchased by MOT in 1986, the extensively restored opera house re-opened 10 years later. In 1997, the two were joined by The Gem and Century Theatres, which were moved five blocks (and set a Guinness Book world record in the process) when construction of Comerica Park threatened the 1903 complex with a date with the wrecking ball.

Since then, the district has expanded to include of The Marlene Boll Theatre inside the Boll Family YMCA.

Scattered around the rest of the city are Matrix Theatre Company in Southwest Detroit and The Abreact Performance Space on the edge of Detroit's Corktown District. But located in the geographic center of the city lives Michigan's oldest non-profit union theater, the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Established in 1957 and still led by most of its founders, the Rep has survived a riot, white and black flight, and neighborhood disintegration to earn a reputation for excellence and innovation in the field of theater.

And guess what? Our quick tour has only touched upon the depth of Detroit's professional theater community, nor have we addressed the excitement that occurs every week on stages throughout the city's suburbs.

So as you can see, professional theater in Detroit is alive and well – and second to none (with the exception of Broadway). And to find out what's happening in the city and elsewhere in Michigan, log on to  for free, up-to-the-minute news, reviews and ticket information!