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Picture-perfect palace

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Published 9/29/2004

The Fox Theatre lends itself to fanciful daydreams. Reclining in one of the cushy red velvet seats and gazing upward at the dome of gold and glitz, you can’t help but imagine what it would be like sitting in that very same seat 50 years ago, when Frank Sinatra’s honeyed voice spilled forth from that very same stage. Or when earlier big band greats, such as Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, had the entire place swinging. Or what it was like to watch newsreels fill the giant screen, with updates from World War II.

The Fox, located at 2211 Woodward Ave. in Detroit, was built as an opulent movie and concert venue in 1928, and remains one of the largest surviving movie palaces from the 1920s. It cost $12 million to erect; and was part of a nationwide chain of lavish theaters built by William Fox of Fox Pictures (now 20th Century Fox). The Fox theaters in Detroit, St. Louis and Atlanta were the largest and are still standing today; sadly, the smaller but equally beauteous Foxes in San Francisco and Brooklyn were demolished.

Incidentally, the St. Louis theater was built from the Detroit blueprints, and is nearly an identical twin.

“Inside the Fox in St. Louis, you think you’re going to step out the front door and be on Woodward,” says Greg Bellamy, the Detroit Fox Theatre’s general manager.

Designed by C. Howard Crane (whose architectural résumé includes Orchestra Hall), the sumptuous 5,000-seat theater explodes with flashes of gold and red velvet. The auditorium’s organ is the second largest in the world, holding 2,500 pipes. The carvings that adorn the walls and ceiling are extremely eclectic, with architectural whispers of the Far East.

“In the 1920s when they built these theaters, they wanted people to see the world through movies and the buildings they were in,” explains Bellamy, “so they brought in architecture from all around the world to show people what was out there, to give them the experience of travel they couldn’t enjoy.”

Bellamy says that Crane referred to his creation as “a Hindu and Burmese temple of amusement.”

In 1987, owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, building on the efforts of previous developer Chuck Forbes, gave the historic theater a facelift. Ironically, the extensive renovation cost $12 million, the same cost of building the theater in 1928.

After 18 months of elbow grease, the newly sparkling theater reopened; it can be argued that the Fox’s renovation was one of the major steps toward downtown Detroit’s resurgence.

Dubbed “Detroit’s Crown Jewel,” the elegant and timeless Fox has witnessed every trend, cultural phenomenon and societal shift since its opening. From the silent films of the 1920s, to the Motown explosion in the 1960s, to Riverdance and David Copperfield, the Fox is where metro Detroiters go when they want to be entertained in style.

Send comments to sklein@metrotimes.com.

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