Historic Detroit

Cass Theatre

The Cass Theatre was a leading lady in the city’s entertainment business, one of many theaters that dotted the Detroit landscape.

The Cass Theatre was designed by Herbert J. Krapp and had been added onto the existing, Donaldson & Meier-designed Board of Commerce Building on the northwest corner of Lafayette and Washington Boulevard, across from the Free Press Building. The theater would host many of the stars of the stage, help usher in the era of Cinerama and end its run reduced to showing pornographic movies.

Building a foundation

The theater’s history is tied to that of the Board of Commerce, which was formally organized June 30, 1903. It had occupied three rooms in the Hammond Building on Campus Martius for a few months before spending a couple of years in the State Bank Building. At the end of the three-year lease, the bank decided it didn’t have the room to spare, and the board was looking for new quarters. In early 1907, shelled out $45,000 (about $1 million today, when adjusted for inflation) for the home of Dr. William Brodie on Lafayette and Washington Boulevard, then known as Wayne. The board used the house until 1912, when the organization decided it needed more room to grow. That year, Brodie’s house was flattened and construction started on what would come to be known as the Board of Commerce Building.

On the stormy morning of Feb. 6, 1913, a procession was led from the Russell House hotel on Campus Martius to the site for the cornerstone-laying ceremony. On Oct. 6, 1913, more than 1,000 members of the organization turned out for the dedication. The three-story brick building and group were a prominent piece of life in Detroit for many years. Former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in the building’s auditorium on May 23, 1918. The venue also hosted William Jennings Bryan.

A star is born

In the 1920s, Detroit Free Press owner E.D. Stair was not only making a fortune with his newspaper, but also in showbiz. In 1925, Stair and the Shubert family opened the Lafayette Theatre in the former Orpheum, and its booming business fueled his interest in opening another down the road. It so happened that land across the street from the newspaper, behind the Board of Commerce Building, was undeveloped and being used as a parking lot. Stair saw dollar signs and a chance to expand his entertainment empire, which would eventually grow to about 30 theaters across the country. Among his Detroit properties were the Garrick and Lyceum theaters and the Whitney and Detroit opera houses.

In 1925, it was announced that an addition would be built onto the three-story Board of Commerce Building, converting it into a six-story office and theater building. Lee and Jacob J. Shubert, who ran dozens of playhouses across the country, and Stair were the masterminds of the transformation. They tapped Krapp for the job, as the Shuberts were familiar with his work: He had designed more than 40 theaters for the family at that point. He also had designed several respected Broadway theaters.

For its trouble, Stair gave the board free space in the newspaper’s offices across the street during the renovation, and the group also had access to the auditorium when a production wasn’t using the stage.

The curtain rises

The Cass was the first theater built specifically for legitimate productions in the city since the dawn of the century. All others had been built before 1900 or were built for purposes other than handling touring theater productions. Moreover, the Detroit News wrote in September 1926, “the new theater serves to emphasize the increasing importance of Lafayette (Boulevard) as a center of business, amusement and culture.”

The Cass opened Sept. 12, 1926, with a production of Sigmund Romberg’s “Princess Flavia,” starring Howard Marsh and Evelyn Herbert and was an operetta based on Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Writing the day after the theater’s opening, the Free Press called the Cass “Detroit’s newest and most pretentious theater devoted to first class dramatic and musical productions” and said it was “commodious beyond what its exterior would suggest.”

One of the more impressive aspects of the renovation is that few structural changes were made to the building other than the floors added to the top of it. The walls were mostly left intact and the marble stairways untouched. The original Board of Commerce entrance on Washington Boulevard became the main entrance to the theater; the office building had a separate entrance.

Club Woman magazine had a play-by-play of a visit to the Cass in its September 1926 issue: “After crossing the foyer and entering the passage leading to the main auditorium, one is surprised to find he has burst into the very heart of the theatre, for instead of entering the rear of the auditorium, the passage leads to the center of the orchestra.”

There were five boxes on either side of the auditorium. Its ceiling was tinted pale green with gold accents. The tapestries featured a rose brocade. The walls were covered in walnut paneling – as were the lobby, corridors and the vestibule. A large crystal chandelier dangled above the theatergoers’ heads with several smaller ones also dotting the ceiling. The dressing rooms were built in tiers.

The foyer and lobby were roomier than other Detroit theaters, the former featuring plenty of chairs and divans to give “patrons the opportunity to visit comfortably between acts,” the News wrote. The Free Press wrote that the Cass’ decor was more dignified than gorgeous. Still, it was a “playhouse as dignified as it is beautiful, planned with a view affording patrons every comfort.” The last part was a reference to a boast its owners were particularly proud of: There wasn’t a blind spot in the house. The auditorium featured wide aisles and a stadium style with a sharp elevation that gave “full visibility in the farthest reaches which is the equal of that afforded in the front of the house,” the paper said. It sat 1,500, including 600 in the boxes and balcony.

“The Cass is counted, by those versed in theatrical architecture, the last word,” the Free Press put it pointedly. At the same time, a reminder might be necessary that the Cass and Free Press were owned by the same man.

The stage was the largest in Detroit at the time — 86 feet wide and 40 feet deep -– making it possible to properly present traveling productions that had otherwise “have been handicapped in Detroit by the lack of stage area,” the Free Press wrote in September 1926.

What’s in a name?

Many Detroiters were puzzled as to why the Cass Theatre was almost a block away from Cass Avenue. The answer: It was named for the man, not the thoroughfare. Stair was arguably one of the biggest fans around of Michigan’s most distinguished statesman, Lewis Cass. Cass was governor of the Michigan territory from 1813-1831; President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war; secretary of state for President James Buchanan; the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1848; and a minster to France.

Stair reportedly told friends that he thought Cass was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and contributed the most to the development of Michigan and Detroit. He even had an oil painting of the general hanging above his desk at the top of the Free Press Building. The publisher also had sculptor Corrado Parducci include Cass’ visage in the bas reliefs dotting the newspaper building.

Thrilling the masses

Its golden era was the 1920s to 1940s, with the theater hopping for 48 weeks in 1943-44. Throughout the years, the Cass proved to be an elegant showcase for the greats of the world of stage. Ethel Barrymore played there in “The Corn is Green.” Elissa Landi dazzled Cass crowds in “Tomorrow the World.” Boris Karloff performed in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Patricia Morrison graced the stage in early presentations of “The King and I.” Judy Holliday starred in “Bells are Ringing” there. Katharine Cornell and Raymond Massey took the lead in “Lovers and Friends.” Other stars of the era who shined at the Cass include Bette Davis, W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Elissa Landi, Eva Le Gallienne, Miriam Hopkins, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, Clifton Webb and Peggy Wood.

On June 11, 1936, Polly Walters — lead actress in the production “Boy Meets Girl” — pulled a switch pumping icy air onto the masses at the Cass. It was on that day that the theater became the first legitimate theater between New York City and Chicago with air-conditioning. The move helped to bolster attendance as Detroiters looked to beat the heat.

That September, the Cass received a new sound system said to be “as realistic as the human voice.” The Shearer 2-way speaker sound was installed in preparation for the showing of MGM’s “Romeo & Juliet,” and was one of about a dozen in the country. While still focusing on theater, the Cass also showed other films, such as “The Great Ziegfeld” in 1936 and “The Good Earth” and “The Life of Emile Zola,” both in 1937.

On April 22, 1945, the theater’s 40-foot, 1.5-ton sign that had hung on the building for nearly 20 years was removed after the city had condemned it as dangerous. A 70-foot erector crane mounted on a truck dismantled it and hauled it away to join the scrap-metal pile as part of the war effort during World War II.

Despite the theater’s booming run during the 1940s, as Detroit started to bleed population in the 1950s and ’60s, the Cass — like most downtown venues — went downhill fast. Tastes changed even faster, with movies having long since supplanted stage in the U.S. Touring stage attractions, in general, began to decline in the 1950s. But after World War II, the Shubert-Lafayette became the top spot downtown for legitimate theater. The Shubert wasn’t nearly as grand as the Cass, but it was more aggressive in going after touring shows. Legendary Free Press columnist Louis Cook called the Cass the “gracious dowager of Detroit’s legitimate theaters.” After Stair’s death in 1951, the theater was hardly used. The Cass hung on, even though its marquee was dark more than lighted during this time; it was dark for all but seven weeks in 1958, for example. But the Cass could last only so long at that rate.

Roll film

In October 1962, it was announced that the Cass would be converted into a Cinerama theater and redubbed the Summit Theatre, though work didn’t start for a couple of years. The E.D. Stair Corp. had maintained ownership of the Cass after its namesake’s death in 1951 at age 93, and leased the theater to Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Beacon Enterprises, which was operating the Cinerama at Music Hall and 11 theaters in other states at the time.

Despite the struggles of other downtown theaters, Beacon’s president, Sheldon Smerling, told the Free Press that October that “We have great faith in Detroit’s urban renewal program, particularly in the Cobo Hall area. … We feel if we present the right attractions in luxurious surroundings it will be in keeping with the city’s redevelopment.”

Architect Drew Eberson was put in charge of the renovation, which cost about $175,000 (about $1.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Eberson was the son of noted theater architect John Eberson, who designed the since-razed Grand Riveria Theatre in Detroit. The theater’s capacity shrunk from 1,500 to about 1,050 under the renovation.

In January 1965, construction workers removed the last rows of the original seats in the theater as part of the overhaul, and they tore down the box seats with sledgehammers, crowbars and acetylene torches. The floor in the auditorium had to be flood to get the glue holding down the old carpet to let go. “Although the Cinerama people were valiantly trying to make one’s thoughts dwell on the brilliant new future of the Cass, nobody could quite dispel the feeling of sadness at what was so obviously the end of an era,” the Free Press wrote about the remodeling of the auditorium.

The News piped in the following month: “For those who have spent many hours in this once-elegant sanctum of make-believe, there are nostalgic aches as hammer and drill shear away large chunks of theatrical remembrances: the boxes along both side walls where proud first-nighters gawked and were gawked at in return, the ornate facing around the balcony, the orchestra pit and the overstuffed seats with enveloping arms, the huge, heavy curtain that opened and closed on the mysteries backstage. All these are gone now. …

“Memories and new entertainment needs are not always compatible. The old must go. The new must be served.”

Old-timers were a tad torn of the changes, but generally accepting of them. “It was a wonderful old theater,” longtime Cass manager Harry McKee told the News in February 1965, “And it’ll be a wonderful new one.”

A new marquee was added to the corner of Washington and Lafayette, and its exterior columns were faced with Calacatta d’Oro marble. Poster displays with aluminum frames were attached to the walls. Dex-O-Tex terrazzo floors were added to the vestibule and steps leading into the theater. New black-and-gold carpet was laid throughout, and the ceiling was lowered with acoustical tiles. The walls were covered with gold vinyl, and modern paintings and gold sofas were placed in the lobby. A new ticket booth was installed inside, as was a new concession stand, which kept the original walnut paneling and used a walnut formica to match. New, comfier seats, described as being swathed in watermelon velvet, were installed, as were watermelon-colored drapes. The Cass was equipped with Norelco DP-70 projectors in order to handle all film sizes and techniques, and the projection booth was moved to the back of the main floor, allowing for 42 more seats in the balcony. A giant, curved screen was installed to handle the Cinerama films, and a Ballantyne transistor sound system was put in.

It started showing Cinerama films, reopening Feb. 15, 1965, with the Cinerama flick “Circus World.”

The Board of Commerce Building got a $150,000 (about $1 million today) face-lift of its own in August 1966, a year after the changes to the Cass/Summit. The Free Press said the move was “to make sure the entire building is as attractive as the remodeled Summit Theater.” The architect on the project was T. Rogvoy Associations, which had redesigned/modernized more than 40 buildings in downtown Detroit. The move gave the building a restyled exterior of face brick with new arches starting at the ground level up to the second floor. The windows on the second floor were concealed behind anodized aluminum screens in a bronze tone.

Drive-in

But the theater still struggled to compete with newer movie theaters in the suburbs and outer reaches of the city limits. Cinerama ran out of product to show, and times continued to be rough for Detroit’s entertainment business. The theater switched to pornographic movies shortly before closing in March 1971. Long runs of “I Am Curious,” “Without a Stitch” and other sultry fare was becoming increasingly common downtown. The porn theater’s proximity across the street from the Detroit Free Press Building and being near the Book-Cadillac Hotel did not help its reputation. The theater briefly reopened as the Pandora and screen the occasional ethnic film, but closed for good around 1975.

In the fall of 1977, the plush watermelon-colored seats were pulled out, and the grid over the stage was dismantled and sold. The Norelco DP-70 projectors were removed and placed in the Redford Theatre in Detroit, where they still thrill moviegoers today. Starting In late October 1977, the Cass and the Board of Commerce Building were demolished to make way for a giant surface parking lot that is still in use today. Demolition continued into the new year.

“The world changes, as it must,” Cook wrote in the Free Press’ obit story about the theater’s demolition, “but it is hard on the elderly when the old landmarks go down.”