Historic Detroit

Eastown Theatre

Patrons of the Eastown Theatre went from downing popcorn to downing tabs of LSD. The theater is the last survivor of Detroit’s four major neighborhood movie palaces, but its legacy was made as one of the city’s most notorious drug-infused rock venues.

With the rise of movies and the city’s fortunes in the 1920s, Detroit got a number of palatial movie palaces. And as Detroit continued to sprawl and grow, enterprising theater owners decided to bring the movie palaces to the neighborhoods. The west side got the Grand Riviera. The southwest got the Hollywood. The north got the Uptown. And the east side got the Eastown.

The Eastown opened in a largely residential area on Harper Avenue near Van Dyke at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 1, 1931, with the movie “Sporting Blood,” starring Clark Gable. Advertisements in newspapers at the time declared the theater’s opening as the “dawn of a new entertainment era” and invited Detroiters to “thrill to the glory of Detroit’s newest, finest Palace of Happiness.’” The ads also proclaimed the theater’s opening as “the most glorious event in the history of east Detroit.” Business owners and merchants in the neighborhood pitched in by decorating the surrounding streets for the grand opening.

With 2,500 seats, it was comparable in size and elegance to most of the downtown theaters. The Eastown was built solely for “talking pictures,” and when it opened, admission was 15 cents for afternoons, a quarter for evenings and 35 cents for Saturday and Sunday evenings. Children got in any time for a dime. Patrons would get dressed up for a night at the movies, and uniformed ushers would guide them to their seats.

The complex was built for the Wisper & Wetsman movie chain, one of the largest independent operators of movie theaters in metro Detroit at the time. It was designed by architect V.J. Waier, who used a blend of classical styles for an interior that was mostly Baroque. It is his only known surviving work in the city. The building was constructed between 1926 and 1930 and featured a 6-foot-high lit dome in the auditorium with a gold-gilded ceiling. The lobby featured imported marble with a wide, elegant marble stairway flowing into the mezzanine. Like those theaters downtown, the Eastown featured office space and stores, but it also had 35 apartments. In addition, it had the grand Eastown Ballroom, with large arched windows, a band shell and an oak dance floor. Up to 300 people could dine there on fine linen and elegant china or attend weddings and banquets.

From movie shows to rock shows

The Eastown spent nearly four decades thrilling Detroiters as a movie house until it closed in 1967. But it was far from dead. Around this time, many old movie houses and ballrooms, like the Grande Ballroom and the Michigan Theatre, were being converted into rock venues. The once opulent movie palace was largely stripped of adornment, and its seats were ripped out in order to cram more humanity onto the cement floor. It was in this incarnation that the Eastown became one of the foremost places to see rock ’n’ roll in town — and one of its most notorious concert halls.

On May 29, 1969, the theater reopened with its first rock show, with SRC as the headliner. Among those who would play for $3 to $5 a ticket were the Who, the Kinks, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, the Faces, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Captain Beefheart, Steppenwolf, King Crimson, James Gang, Rush, J. Geils Band and Joe Walsh. Among the locals, the MC5, the Stooges, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Bob Seger all took its stage. Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes recorded their live album “Survival of the Fittest” at the Eastown, and Joe Cocker began his “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour there.

The Detroit Free Press quoted rocker Alice Cooper in August 1997 as saying that the Eastown was “the best audience in the world. And I’m not saying that just because you’re writing it down. Any other city, people went home from work to put on their Levis and black leather jackets for a concert. In Detroit they came from work like that. The Eastown — those were pure rock ’n’ roll times.”

While the Grande had a hippie vibe, the Eastown was all blue-collar — and it was rough. “I remember stepping over a body that had overdosed in front of the backstage door on my way in to talk to Alice (Cooper),” Bill Gray recalled in the Free Press in 1976. “Decadence was treated casually at the Eastown. I also recall coming back to my car after the show, reaching for an eight-track tape and finding air where the tape deck had been two hours before. That was the Eastown.”

That was the Eastown, “a veritable drug supermarket” and major nuisance for then-Mayor Roman Gribbs.

A musical dope den

Despite two deaths associated with the Eastown in four months, several drug arrests, twenty violations issued by the Detroit Fire Department and operating without city business licenses for nearly a year, the Eastown kept putting on rock shows. Its capacity was legally 1,727, but some nights it drew crowds of 3,000. In December 1970, Gribbs ordered the Eastown’s licenses pulled, but the theater received court injunctions that kept it alive pending city hearings.

Those hearings weren’t helped by the venue’s track record. Between Sept. 19, 1969, and Dec. 17, 1971, the theater received six violations for overcrowding. It also was no secret that the Eastown was a haven for drugs. Detroit police and city officials knew about it, “but fear that any move to stop the drug traffic will provoke a riot” allowed the thriving, unchecked drug dealing to continue, the Free Press wrote in December 1971.

The final straw came after the Free Press launched a month-long investigation in November 1971 into the Eastown. “More than a dozen dope dealers” operated every weekend “with almost no fear of the management, the theater’s security force or the Detroit police,” the paper wrote that December.

Bob Bageris, then 24 years old, told the Free Press that “the Eastown is not a place for dope. I try to keep dope out.” But the Free Press investigation found that he didn’t do a good job of it. “On three successive nights …Free Press reporters mingled with the young people patronizing the dealers … watched dozens of sales, and found it a simple matter to buy pills and powder hawked as mescaline, amphetamines, barbiturates, LSD, cocaine and heroin.” The newspaper did lab tests and found that some were the real deal and others were phony: “One batch of purported heroin turned out to be an insoluble substance that could kill anyone who injected it.”

Angry residents and parents insisted that the city step in, and Mayor Gribbs yanked the licenses that month, citing violations of city health and safety codes. A week later, a federal judge declined to overturn Gribbs’s order, and the Eastown stayed closed.

The concert hall would briefly reopen under new management for a handful of shows spread out over a couple of months in 1973. Gribbs approved of its reopening at the time but withdrew his support that June following a flurry of protests from neighborhood groups and a survey of residents showing that 80 percent opposed the venue reopening its doors. Lizz Haskell, president of a neighborhood improvement association, told the Detroit News in May 1973 that Eastown patrons would park in their driveways or on their lawns and “sometimes ran through the streets without any clothes on.”

“This community is no place to be staging a rock concert,” Haskell told the News that July. “This theater is bringing nothing but crime and drugs into our community.”

Eastown Productions Inc. carried on without a license but under the belief that it would get one, citing a letter from Gribbs saying that its license was approved. Joe Walsh and REO Speedwagon did the reopening honors on July 19, 1973, before nearly 3,000 fans. About 50 protesters picketed as “the sweet, pungent smell of marijuana and popcorn and sweat mixed with the blaring rock music and shouts,” the Free Press reported at the time. There were several minor shoving incidents between concertgoers and demonstrators, and several people reported their tires slashed. Meanwhile, four youths suffering from drug overdoses were taken to a hospital. The city wound up denying the permits, and the battle returned to the courtroom, where a judge ruled that the Eastown could be closed.

New name, same bad luck

In late 1975 or early 1976, the Eastown was renamed the Showcase Theatre and reopened as a play, music and jazz hall with 2,000 seats reinstalled. High school friends Chris Jaszczak, Gary MacDonald and Mike Jeanguenat — all under 30 at the time — were one-time Eastown regulars who loved the theater but were newcomers to the entertainment business. Jaszczak told the Free Press in 1976: “We are the children of white flight from Detroit. Now we are coming back and we all live in the Showcase neighborhood. We have more than a business interest — we live there.”

Ravi Shankar, Tom Waits and Pat Metheny played there during this era, as did the Godfather of Soul. James Brown brought his sweaty, high-octane stage show for fourteen gigs in six days at the Showcase in December 1976 during his “Body Heat” tour. When Brown allegedly wouldn’t pay the Showcase for rent, the venue refused to give him back his $50,000 worth of equipment, and a temporary court order was issued. Brown eventually paid up, Jaszczak noted. After about a year and a half, Jaszczak said he’d had enough, and he went to work at a different venue. “The gangs in the neighborhood were awful,” recalled Jaszczak, now 62 and living in downtown Detroit. “When we went out to change the marquee, we’d have to send two people out there or else they’d steal the letters and try to sell them back to us…We’d do a show and patrons would come out and all their tires would be gone.”

The owner of the theater, Forester Hill Management, took out classified ads looking for a theater company to become a tenant. Charles Reed answered the call, and the Detroit Center for the Performing Arts started staging professional theater, children’s plays, educational plays and free acting workshops. Despite the Eastown’s less-than-desirable location, Reed told the Free Press in 1985, “I think there’s room for good theater everywhere.” At its high point, the DCPA entertained 30,000 people a year with its adult and youth theaters, according to the organization. “To work there was incredible,” said actor Daniel Jaroslaw, now 60 and living in Pepin, Wis. “At night, the theater would speak to you with creaks and groans. It was just so cavernous.”

While the building may have been sound, it still looked vacant and condemned and was filled with rubble and debris. In the mid-’90s, the DCPA planned to spend $2 million to $6 million restoring the plasterwork and updating the ballroom and backstage area and mechanical and electrical systems. But those plans were dependent solely on fund-raising, grants and contributions, and “Detroit was really taking a beating in the arts” at the time, Jaroslaw said. The plan included conducting children’s theaters, plays, workshops and musicals for low-income youths and renting the theater out for shows. In return for their lessons, students were to contribute their time, helping out with ushering, selling concessions and cleaning up. But the project foundered, and the Eastown closed again.

The curtain closes

In the mid- to late 1990s, the Eastown became an infamous site of raves attended by hundreds of people. While in ragged shape, the theater still clung to much of its past grandeur. Its exotic chandeliers still dangled from the ceiling, and beautiful tapestries still framed the stage. Its electric blue seats were still there, albeit musty and moldy. Then it was taken over by a church group, which housed some of its members in the complex’s apartments. The church tried several times to sell the theater, starting about 2004, for $2 million. The price was cut in half in late 2009.

The building was abandoned and quickly took a turn for the worse. In recent years, a fire gutted the apartments in the complex. Decorative plaster lies in heaps everywhere, though there are still spots where the building’s original luster shines. The paint has worn from the proscenium arch in places. Likewise, busts of women on the walls, once beautiful coppers and gold, are now plain white, if still intact at all. The walls in the auditorium have been washed away from a faulty roof. The electric blue paint that had been slapped on the balcony is still there, even though big chunks of the balcony are not, having succumbed to water damage. The chandeliers and railings are gone, too, as are the moldy seats.

Yet despite the devastation, the dome of the auditorium almost looks brand-new, painted as vividly as the day it was applied — a bright spot that belies a fate that is anything but.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 2010, a fire destroyed the apartments in the complex, reducing half the building to nothing but rubble. An emergency demolition notice was posted on the building the following day. It seems unlikely that the city will go to the lengths required to safely demolish the burned-out apartments and save the theater. The neighborhood is among the most dangerous in Detroit, and the money required to revive the Eastown Theatre means the grand movie palace on the east side will almost certainly fall to the wreckers.