Historic Detroit

Grande Ballroom

It is a rock ‘n’ roll mecca.

Designed in 1928 by Charles N. Agree for dance hall entrepreneurs Edward J. Strata and his partner Edward J. Davis, the Grande started off as a place Detroiters would go to dance and listen to jazz and big band sounds, but it would later achieve immortal status in the annals of music history as a rock venue. It is arguably the birthplace of punk and hard-driving rock, where bands like The MC5 and The Stooges cut their chops and became legends.

The building was designed in the Moorish Deco style and contained storefront space on the first floor and on the second a ballroom with Moorish arches featuring a floor on springs that gave dancers the feeling of floating. The dance floor held 1,500 dancers and was one of the largest in the city. Its ground floor had several retail tenants, such as W.T. Grant Department Stores, Beverly’s and a drugstore. The neighborhood was a predominately Jewish enclave in the 1930s and ’40s.

The Grande, on Grand River at Joy, was the place for young Detroiters to go. Those living on the city’s west side hopped on a streetcar or hoofed it to its large blade marquee and dance the night away doing the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. Those on the city’s east side headed to its sister, the Vanity Ballroom, which Agree also designed for Strata and Davis, in 1929. The pair of ballrooms, including the cost of land, cost the men about $500,000 ($6.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation).

Dancing days

Throughout the years the ballroom featured jazz, ballroom dancing and big bands until the styles lost popularity following World War II. The Grande and other dance halls tried to make up for the changes in taste, offering theme nights like Inter-Parish Nights on Fridays in the early 1940s.

“The Grande is a place where you’d pay to get in, and you’d try to find the best-looking girl you could and ask her to dance,” recalled Fred Herr, now 86 years old and living in Plymouth.

Americans’ entertainment habits had changed. Some blamed jukeboxes and records. Others blamed shifts in jazz, like bebop, which turned dancers into listeners.

Mr. and Mrs. John T. Hayes took over running the Grande in 1955, “doing their best to revive it,” the Detroit News wrote in September 1957. Radio and television had “altered entertainment habits” and attendance at the Grande had fallen off dramatically. But the Hayeses were determined to keep ballroom dancing alive, hosting live music on Friday and Saturday evenings that catered to 17- to 30-year-olds, many from church and social groups. Fridays were “get acquainted” nights. Saturdays were for dating or married couples and often got up to 700 couples a night. Men had to wear sport coats, ties and shirts.

Mrs. Hayes, who, the News wrote, “reflects the concern of a good housekeeper and home maker anxious to create a wholesome atmosphere for a pleasant activity enjoyed by many,” acted as a sort of chaperone and hostess at the Grande, even handling introductions when requested. The couple sought to provide a wholesome place for young people to dance the night away in a world that was increasingly becoming more rock and roll. Mrs. Hayes even told the News in 1957 that, even though Elvis Presley had three of the top 10 singles that year, “teen-agers now seem to be more interested in learning the more graceful steps that will possibly be an asset for them in the future” and said the Grande’s patrons were “only minorly interested in be-bop and rock ‘n’ roll music.” The dancers did the fox trot, tango, waltz and bolero, as well as swing and the Charleston, though “the current favorite of our dancers is the Cha Cha Cha.”

By 1961, the Grande was the only venue in the city with any semblance of what ballroom dancing used to be.

The ballroom did not serve liquor, “nor do we allow persons who have been drinking on the premises. This is not a pickup place,” she told the News. “We do not emphasize the type of dancing or create the kind of atmosphere that appeals to troublemakers.”

Despite the changing world, “people still love to dance and meet others with the same interest. Many a nice young couple found each other at a place like ours,” Mrs. Hayes told the News.

This “squarish” attitude and the Hayeses’ reluctance to change led to the Grande’s downfall, and it eventually closed and was turned into roller-skating rink and then a storage facility for mattresses.

This set the table for the man who would immortalize the Grande.

Kicking out the jams

Russ Gibb, a social studies teacher at Maples Junior High School in Dearborn was a popular local radio DJ at the time. Gibb took a trip out to San Francisco to visit a friend in early 1966 and paid a visit to the storied Fillmore Auditorium and saw The Byrds. When he returned to Detroit, he set out to bring Bill Graham’s Fillmore to the Motor City. He scouted out several locations, including the then-closed, since-demolished Gayety Burlesque theater on Cadillac Square downtown and the ballroom of the Statler Hotel on Grand Circus Park, which also has been razed. He settled on the Grande, which was near the neighborhood he grew up in back in the 1940s and entered a rent-to-buy deal with the Kleinman family.

“I remember going down there because my cousin would go dancing there, and we’d pick her up from the Grande,” said Gibb, who never went dancing there himself. “I was looking and trying to get a deal and had asked other disc jockeys if they wanted to kick in on the place. They were all doing record hops at the time, and they asked where it was. ‘You can’t do it down there,’ they said, ‘that’s a black neighborhood.’ … Well, kids always want to go where their parents don’t want them to go. And I knew location wouldn’t mean diddley if the music was there, they’d come. I knew what I saw in San Francisco would work here.”

Gibb would reach out into Detroit’s beatnik community and meet people like John Sinclair, a “long hair” who had just served a six-month sentence in the Detroit House of Corrections for marijuana possession and columnist for the counterculture newspaper The Fifth Estate. Sinclair would go on to manage The MC5 and become a counter-culture revolutionary, being the key figure in the hippie collaborative Detroit Artists Workshop, later known as Trans-Love Energies Unlimited.

“Russ Gibb went out to San Francisco, saw the first dances at the Avalon and the Fillmore by the Family Dog and Bill Graham Presents, respectively. And he came back to Detroit and thought we should have a place like that here. … He was going to have it be different. It wasn’t going to be like a teen club. It was going to be a place where bands would write their own material and have their own identity. There weren’t going to be any cover bands. There weren’t going to be any bar bands.”

Gibb, who would become known as “Uncle Russ,” molded the Grande after popular rock halls on the West Coast like the Fillmore and Whiskey A Go-Go. A massive screen hung behind the stage showing light shows and psychedelic water and oil images. The MC5 wound up being like the anchor of the Grande, playing there every week at least once. The band’s lead singer, Rob Tyner, introduced Gibb to his friend Gary Grimshaw, who would go on to become a legendary graphic artist, made its concert posters and handbills to promote the shows.

The Grande opened the evening of Oct. 7, 1966, to a crowd of about 60 people turning out to see the Chosen Few and The MC5. Before long, the rock music and the counter-culture environment started luring kids from the suburbs eager to shed the ties and ditch the Brylcreem. The Grande became “the embassy for the suburban youth, whose parents had spirited them out of Detroit forever,” Sinclair said. “They kind of thought the shopping malls were kind of lame, you know? They wanted to do something more interesting, so they started coming into the city. … Just as their parents feared, it rubbed off.”

While Mrs. Hayes occasionally found herself whispering “to a sweet young thing that her slip is showing,” this new incarnation of the Grande would cater to a much different crowd.

“If you went to the Grande Ballroom, somehow somebody turned you on and took you to the Grande Ballroom, you entered a different world,” Sinclair said. “It was none like any of the world that they had presented to you before, and there was no interpretive code, you were just thrust into the middle of it. And if you were lucky, Neal would come with a new batch of acid at 10 o’clock on a Friday night and pass it out to the regulars. If you were lucky, you might get one. And by the time you went home – if you went home – you would be in a whole different place mentally, just completely different. So in that way, it was like a gateway into a new and much more interesting and exciting world, which had music at the core of it, and art and images, you know. It was different. It was nothing like Ford Motors, quite frankly.”

It featured one of the largest strobe lights ever built at the time. While Gibb, who was paying about $700 a month in rent, started off booking local acts like the MC5, Stooges, SRC, The Frost and the Rationals, in 1967, he started bringing in famous touring rock acts, the first being Vanilla Fudge on Dec. 15. Other rock legends soon followed, pummeling the sweaty crowds in temperatures that sometime reached 100 degrees: Led Zeppelin, John Lee Hooker, the Yardbirds, Cream, Pink Floyd, Canned Heat, the Jeff Beck Group, The Byrds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, the Velvet Underground, Canned Heat, the Steve Miller Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Blue Cheer, Tim Buckley and more all played the Grande.

This shift from local bands to touring acts started innocently enough, Gibb said, when Sinclair brought the band The Fugs in from New York. “I thought we’d get the hippie crowd, but we made some money on that. Some of the English bands, they’d get on a bus back in those days, start in New York, go to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis. So we were a logical stop from Cleveland or Buffalo. It really started as a matter of convenience for the English bands. Once they played the Grande and saw the sound was great, they spread the word. And once word got out in England that there was a great place where the people were cool, and the sound was cool and the city was cool, the Grande became a legend.”

In the meantime, the MC5 were gaining national attention, and on March 3, 1968, a band fronted by a young Jim Osterberg took the stage of the Grande, the Psychedelic Stooges. It was at the Grande that the man known as Iggy who rolled around in broken glass, smeared peanut butter on his chest and cut himself first took the stage. Iggy Pop had arrived, and the Grande’s place in the annals of rock history was cemented.

Pop told the Free Press in 1997 that the Grande “was rock school for me – a big sweatbox with one little window. You’d come out of there feeling like you’d really been through something.”

One of the more storied shows at the Grande came on March 9, 1968, when The Who took to the stage before a packed house. The band was exhausted after playing big shows in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles before pulling into Detroit, Who tour manager Tom Wright told David A. Carson for his book “Grit, Noise & Revolution.” But playing at the Grande that night was similar to “dozing off in class and waking up in Times Square at five in the afternoon and realizing you’re on acid.” Wright said he “had never seen the Who try harder” and said that “The Who left Detroit convinced that they would be successful.”

That was because “the Grande Ballroom’s audiences were probably the best audiences in the world,” MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson told the filmmakers of “Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story.” “The Grande Ballroom’s audience was this, this, a beast of its own. They were just fanatics, and they just loved music and they loved the hard-driving music and they showed up. Tickets were 5 bucks, c’mon, you could see four bands for $5. And once you filled that places, maybe 2,500 to 3,000 people, it would rock. I mean, there was no alcohol there. If anybody did any drugs or whatever, they did it beforehand or they surreptitiously did it somewhere on the sides, or whatever. They came there for the music. They came there to have a good time, and they did have a good time. I mean, where else could you go to see The Who, The MC5 and two other bands for maybe 6 bucks? Nowhere.”

In September 1968, The MC5 and The Stooges signed to Elektra Records, and it was announced that the MC5 would record its first long-player live at the Grande, an unprecedented move for a debut album. But the Grande is what made the band, and the live album was deemed the only way to capture the energy of this band of rock and roll guerrillas. On Oct. 30, “Kick Out the Jams,” one of the greatest live albums of all time was recorded by a band many Detroiters regarded as the best live band anywhere.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is about as far from dancing as you can get,” one-time ballroom operator Albert Tolettene, who ran the Walled Lake Casino, bemoaned to the Detroit News in 1961. “I don’t blame the young people, though. If people had never had steak, they don’t know what steak tastes like.”

The day the music died

The Grande’s final show came on New Year’s Eve 1972. Gibb had started booking shows at bigger venues, including the Michigan Palace (formerly the Michigan Theatre), and in other cities across the Midwest. “A big frustration for me was the New York and Hollywood agents,” Gibb said. “If I wanted to have The Doors play, I had to take two or three of their bands, too. I wanted to put local bands on the bill. The greed was incredible. Plus, people were always thinking we were dopers and the cops were giving us a hard time. …

“I had made a lot of dough and was doing shows in other cities by then. It was just part of my musical enterprise. I could do bigger shows with less hassle elsewhere. The scene was changing, and if you’re going to do anything right, you’ve got to be on the crest of change.”

After the venue was finished, the building was seldom used and, much like the neighborhood around it, fell into neglect. It was last used as a secondhand store and has been slowly rotting ever since. The Spanish-tiled roof has long since failed, allowing water to eat large holes in the Grande’s hallowed dance floor. Broken windows allowed rain and snow to transform its plaster ceilings into concrete-like, uneven mounds on the floor. Souvenir seekers have busted off chunks of the Moorish columns in the ballroom. Vandals have punched through walls and smashed the toilets. Scrappers have looted it of its plumbing and valuable metals. The storefronts have become a dumping ground. It is an undignified fate for a hallowed site of music history, and its chances of restoration are slim to none. Still, anyone who can squeeze through the gaps in the boarded up building can take to the stage just like countless legends before them. But instead of roaring applause, the only thing greeting you is the occasional cooing of a pigeon or the wind blowing through an open window.

In August 1986, Rob Cortis, a 24-year-old Farmington, Mich., entrepreneur, was inspired by his parents’ stories of dancing at the Grande. He attempted to revive the Grande name with a boozeless dance club in a strip mall in Westland, complete with a tuxedo-clad doorman. Instead of free drugs and sex and rock legends, he offered free pizza and refreshments and top 40 music. “People who come here get high from the music, the lighting, the atmosphere – high on life instead of high on alcohol,” he told the Detroit News.

In July 2006, signs appeared on the exterior of the building proclaiming, “Future home of Chapel Hill Ministries.” The fate of the Grande is unknown, but its demolition seems inevitable.

When Gibb returned to the Grande about 2008, he said he was overcome with “a wee bit of anger over how a place that meant so much to so many people doesn’t mean that much to the powers that be. There’s a bit of anger at myself but mostly at the city that didn’t realize what it had.”