The National Theatre is the only survivor from Detroit’s first theater district and the only surviving theater known to have been designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn.
Located on Monroe Street at Farmer, near Greektown, the National opened Sept. 16, 1911, as a vaudeville house. It was located in Detroit’s old theater district — before the movie palaces near Grand Circus Park were built. The old Detroit Opera House and the Gayety, Temple, Columbia, Liberty and Family theaters were among the venues that once stood nearby, making it Detroit’s main avenue of entertainment.
Designed by Kahn and his associate Ernest Wilby, the National’s exterior is a Baroque-Moorish-Beaux-Arts hybrid with a Moroccan or Egyptian flavor. Like Kahn’s earlier Grinnell Brothers Music House (built in 1908), the National is covered in white terra cotta fired at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery. It features two proud eagles, carved stone rosettes, cupids and other small Art Noveau details dotting the facade. It has twin, 64-foot gold-domed towers with airy grill work and a grand, recessed Romanesque arch over the entrance. Originally, the archway featured a massive stained glass window. Both the Moorish towers and the arch were dramatically lighted up by hundreds of bulbs at night, giving the theater an amusement park-like vibe. There was an iron framework, illuminated marquee with glass panels, but this was later replaced with more sterile, modern-looking signage.
Inside, its small lobby was narrow and lined with tan Pewabic tile and led into the 800-seat theater, which was simple yet graceful with a high, square proscenium. The interior represents the earliest surviving example of theater construction that would later characterize Detroit’s movie palaces of the Roaring ’20s. It had a suspended plaster interior shell with a brick supporting structure. The shape and technique are similar to what Kahn used in his Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor (built in 1913). Intricate, gold-leaf designs were painted on the walls. Patrons would climb up staircases in the side towers to reach the seats in the balcony.
As vaudeville slowly died out and newer theaters like the Madison (opened in 1917) started showing motion pictures, the National was forced to make changes. It, too, started showing motion pictures, but the small theater couldn’t compete with the rising movie palaces such as the Michigan and United Artists theaters and quickly switched to burlesque with a live orchestra. In the 1940s, the National Burlesk Theater was advertised as “Detroit’s biggest and best” burlesque theater. The runway was lighted from beneath with multicolored panels that the dancers pranced around in their high heels. In the 1960s, evening shows would often start at 8:35 p.m. Among the women strutting their stuff were Miss Dee Dee Devine, Miss Lorelei Lee, Miss Gina Gina, Miss Linda Love, Miss Leslie Lang and Miss Ann Darling.
In an era where full nudity was not allowed, the dancers could take off only what the law would allow. This usually meant five-piece ensembles — where four of the pieces were gloves and shoes. They would twist and shimmy to the music in their underwear and heels. Between the acts, there would be comic relief, performed in the 1960s by Yakum Yakum and Buddy DeVaul. They’d act out jokes with the help of the ladies. These were done in what showbiz called blackouts, in which the lighting operators switched off the lights at the precise moment the punch line was delivered, thus cuing the laughter. The shows went on for an hour and a half, ending with the girls trooping out for a bow as the house lights came up.
In a 1967 Free Press article that took a look into the world of burlesque at the National, reporter Chuck Thurston wrote that “all of the girls are more or less dressed in attractive gowns (and gloves) at the opening of their acts and Miss Lorelei’s is the most attractive of all. She looks like a kid on the way to her first prom and it seems a shame she has to take it off and look like everyone else.”
The National was Detroit’s last live burlesque theater, but burlesque was a dying fad. As its patrons took their business elsewhere, the National’s performers would start taking off more clothes.
The Kahn-designed landmark that opened with vaudeville closed with porn. In the early 1970s, the National made the logical progression from burlesque to showing adult films, operating as an X-rated movie venue known as The Palace. By the early 1970s, the Monroe Block was a dying, decaying area of mostly empty storefronts. In 1975, The Palace joined them.
On Feb. 13, 1975, the National was added to the National Register of Historic Places along with the rest of the Monroe Block. Today, it is the only surviving piece of the block.
The Free Press reported in 1976 that the National’s owner was an elderly invalid who was a descendant of the family that had built the theater. The owner could no longer afford to operate the theater, and Parking Systems Inc., which owned and managed many Detroit parking lots, bought it from the owner for about $60,000.
But Lorna Abraham, Detroit’s parking lot queen, did not level the National. By February 1977, she had sold the building to Donald Grain, an Indian Village resident and theater buff who wanted to open a restaurant and bar inside it and show old movies. Grain’s dream would not be realized as he lost the building to the City of Detroit over back taxes in the early 1980s. When it was inspected, it was discovered that, since closing, a leaking roof caused massive sections of the plaster shell to collapse onto the seats below. A new roof was installed to prevent further damage.
In early January 1990, the National survived a close call when the City of Detroit razed the Monroe Block, a series of Italianate stone and brick buildings built between 1852 and 1911 that made up the city’s first theater district. The City Council had voted 8-0 on Sept. 14, 1988, to raze 12 of the 13 Monroe Block buildings, at an estimated cost of $1 million. The council’s vote spared the National, based on the recommendation of the Downtown Development Authority. Then-council member Barbara-Rose Collins called the Monroe Block “a great hindrance to the development of downtown Detroit. The sooner they tear it down, the better.”
The city’s Central Business District Association said at the time that the National would be mothballed until it could be restored or even moved. City officials had no plans for the Monroe Block when they razed it, saying the site would be a vacant lot awaiting a developer. Now, 25 years later, nothing has been built on the site.
In June 1990, a group of Dallas-based investors that included Detroit natives proposed creating a high-tech European-style dance club in the theater. The plan would have added a two- or three-story addition on the west side of the theater with a rooftop terrace. The interior would have been remodeled to include multilevel dance floors. The plan fell apart.
On Sept. 26 and 27, 1998, Cityscape Detroit and Preservation Wayne members went into the National to clean it up. In 1999, Detroit James Wheeler, an internationally recognized collector of African-American film memorabilia, said he planned to restore the National to show historic films, host film festivals and display his collection. The Michigan Citizen billed it that December as “a Mecca for the Black diaspora.” Architectural and engineering studies were completed. Estimates for the restoration of the National and construction of the addition ranged from $12 million to $20 million. The plan didn’t happen.
In 2000, a 19-member task force was charged with revitalizing the Campus Martius area ahead of the construction of the new Compuware headquarters. Among the improvements that it studied was renovating the National, but that plan didn’t work out.
Today, the National still sits awaiting redevelopment. The façade is intact and appears structurally stable, as do the exterior walls. While the outside is in remarkably good shape, inside is another story. Exposed to the elements and to thieves and scrappers, the theater is a shadow of its former self. The paint is peeling, the elaborate stencil work faded, the plaster destroyed by the penetrating rain and snow.
The theater itself is in heartbreaking condition. Much like its dancers who took it almost all off, most of the decorative work along the balcony has fallen off. Huge chunks are missing from the ceiling and from above the stage. The balcony is devoid of seats, and what’s left of the theater’s red curtain hangs in tatters. Many of the lobby’s Pewabic tiles have been stolen. The decorative mansard roof above the arched window is made of pressed steel and is heavily corroded. All of the mechanical systems — such as the lighting, rigging and plumbing — have either been stripped or damaged by water. It is, essentially, a shell of a building, though a beautiful shell.