Couples used to swing to big band sounds and rockers like the MC5 and the Stooges used to rock in a Mayan temple on the city’s east side.
The Vanity Ballroom opened on the eve of the stock market crash in 1929 on Detroit’s far east side at Newport and Jefferson. It followed several other venues that opened in the 1920s, but because of the Depression, it was the last ballroom to open in the city. Despite the Depression, the Vanity was one of the most popular dance venues in town and a place generations of Detroiters went to hear live performances by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Cab Calloway.
Such spectacular venues were popular places for Detroiters to go dance the night away and socialize. In its heyday, the Vanity hosted huge crowds – up to a 1,000 couples. Five nights a week, they danced to the big bands on the 5,600-square-foot maple dance floor, where couples “floated” on springs that gave the floor bounce. Patrons - who paid 35 cents to get in - would enter from the first floor and ascend a grand main staircase before entering a ballroom that took them to a different time and place – an ancient Aztec temple.
In designing the Vanity, local architect Charles N. Agree worked an Aztec theme into the Art Deco style. The ballroom is filled with stepped archways, rich earth-toned colors and Aztec symbols, all inspired by pre-Columbian archaeological discoveries of the time. Stylized Indian heads, stepped-brick archways and green-glazed tiles hovered over the dancers’ heads. The outside of the building is faced with orange brick with stone and tile ornamentation.
It had two long bars, an enormous cloakroom, a soda fountain (it did not sell alcohol, instead offering ginger ale and juices for 10 cents), a set of 15-inch speakers from the ceiling, a bandstand and a revolving chandelier with light-reflecting mirrors. Everything from the light fixtures to the curtain behind the stage had a Mayan-inspired design. The latter featured a scene of Chichen Itza temples.
During the 1930s and early ‘40s, the ballroom held theme nights. Wednesdays and Thursdays were “stag nights.” On Sundays, up to 900 couples would jam the floor and dance to the Woody Herman Orchestra, Tony Pastor or Claude Thornhill.
It was built and run by Edward J. Strata for 30 years. He and his partner Edward J. Davis had built the Grande Ballroom across town on the west side in 1927. The pair, including the cost of land, cost the men about $500,000 (about $6.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation). The Vanity is, for all intents and purposes, the sister of the Grande. The Vanity catered to the city’s east side and eastern suburbs; the Grande lured those on the west. Both were designed by Agree, and, like the Grande, the Vanity’s ballroom is on the second floor. Below are five commercial shop spaces. At one time there was a Cunningham’s drug store on the corner, Friedberger’s jewelry store, a Harry Suffrin’s, Burns Shoes and other familiar names. Theresa Binno was no stranger to the city’s ballrooms during the 1940s, frequenting the Graystone and Grande ballrooms, in addition to being a regular at the Vanity. When she was 18 or 19 years old, her father would drop her and her girlfriends off for either a night of swing or a date.
“It was just dancing, no liquor or any of that,” said Binno, now 80 and living in Waterford, Mich. “We’d go in the early evening and spend three or four hours dancing, drinking Cokes. … Someone would always ask us to dance. We were always dancing.
“I said I’d never get married unless the guy knew how to dance. … It was a great time to be young.”
It’s been about 50 years since Binno has seen the Vanity.
“Everyone there knew how to dance. Nowadays, it seems like no one knows how to dance. I guess they didn’t go there if they didn’t know how to dance. I wish they had them around now for young people.”
By the 1950s, times had changed. The television was in many households, and rock was in – and ballroom dancing was out.
“In the 1940s and early ‘50s the cost of musicians started going up so that the era of the big bands was over,” Strata, then 75, told the Free Press in 1964. “And, too, the taste of young people has changed so drastically that they just want rock ‘n’ roll and won’t support a big ballroom anymore.”
With the decline of big band, the Vanity ran into problems and closed in 1958 from a lack of business. It would later reopen in February 1964, opening once a week or so, mainly for older people looking to relive the swing era. Admission was $1.25.
While Strata still owned the building, the dances were run by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation as part of the mayor’s Departmental Council on Aging. In addition to the occasional dance, the Vanity mainly housed church and civic club events. The reception was modest: The city had hoped for 250 tickets to be sold to the dances, but barely half that would show.
Strata died the following year, and LeRoy B. McAnally – who was the legal guardian for Strata’s widow – tried his hand at running the Vanity for a few years. While McAnally has danced at the Vanity in his younger years, he had little desire for the business, keeping it open, “frankly, because we felt it would help sell the building,” he told the Detroit Free Press in June 1975.
It so happened that ballroom dancing enjoyed a renewed interest in the mid-1970s, mostly among middle-aged folks who used to dance in their youths.
“You can only read so much, you can only watch the boob tube so much, then you have to do something to relieve the boredom,” Sam Leeds told the Free Press in 1975. He and his wife, Helen, were among those who came to relive their youth by dancing under the red and blue lights on the Vanity’s dance floor.
While the crowds paled in comparison to its glory days, the Vanity joined YMCAs and other venues in offering occasional dances. But if the decline in dancing wasn’t enough of a challenge, the neighborhood around the Vanity started going downhill fast around the same time. Guards had to walk visitors to their cars – a surefire turnoff for business.
The building was sold to the Van Mineff Corp., a small group of investors, in 1971. It was in this incarnation that it would play host to Detroit acts such as the MC5, The Stooges, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes and others that also frequented the Grande. The Velvet Underground was booked to play the Vanity on June 18, 1971, and again Sept. 3. Yet, much like its sister the Grande (which closed in 1972), the Vanity could not survive the decline of garage rock and the decline of Detroit post-1967 riot. The deterioration of the Jefferson-Chalmers area knocked out all of the storefronts’ tenants in the 1970s.
In 1980, twin brothers Ronald and Donald Murphy bought the Vanity from Van Mineff for $200,000. The twins were tour guides at Greenfield Village, a museum in nearby Dearborn, and loved history and classic architecture. The Murphys and Demick had a mutual interest in “gluing Detroit back together,” the Free Press wrote in January 1980, and found their chance when they snuck into the abandoned Vanity through a wide-open door. What they saw shocked them: Busted windows and battered concrete, vagrants had taken roost, and the dance floor once filled with dancing couples was now littered with broken bottles and trash.
“I just thought it was so beautiful. It was just a shambles,” Demick told the News in 1980. “The city was planning to tear it down, but we wanted to save it.”
The brothers set off on one of the more ambitious restoration projects in the city’s history. They found that Agree was still alive, then 82 and living in Southfield, Mich., a nearby suburb of Detroit. They contacted him and consulted photos to “make sure the restored Vanity Ballroom is just like the original.”
They envisioned jazz, disco, parties – and even a return to ballroom dancing. There was talk in the fall of 1980 of opening in one of the Vanity’s storefronts a Graystone Jazz Museum, named after a hallowed jazz venue in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood from the 1920s to the 1940s.
The Claude Neon Tubelite hadn’t worked for years. The balconies under the windows were gone. The five storefronts were vacant. But the ballroom floor and its booths were in surprisingly good shape considering the landmark had been wide-open to vagrants for several years before they bought it. The floor was in reasonable shape but suffering from water damage here and there from a leaky roof. The plaster hieroglyphs survived, however, as did the Mayan mural decorating the stage wall. They repainted with the same rich china blue of the Aztec style as when the building opened 50 years earlier. They wired a 1936 Wurlitzer jukebox into the overhead speakers.
“This is going to be one of the hottest spots in the city,” Demick told the Detroit News in February 1980. “The last time this place was really big was in the ’50s. People would ride the trolley there. One guy told me his mother would walk 10 blocks to get to the Vanity.”
The Vanity would be the city’s last great rock venue, having outlived the Eastown and Riviera theaters, the Grande and the Michigan Palace. But the Vanity faced the challenges of a shrinking city, a location far from downtown, was fighting a decaying neighborhood, and a lack of a liquor license didn’t help. The twins and Demick folded.
The ballroom reopened in 1983 but closed the following year.
In late 1986, the Vanity was resurrected in an attempt to become a Caribbean-style entertainment hangout. The ballroom became the home base for Hugh Borde’s Trinidad Tripoli Streel Band on Friday nights. Promoter Arzal Smith said he hoped to branch out into big band music, progressive rock and jazz. On Dec. 12, 1987, a birthday party was held at the Vanity for the MC5’s former frontman, Rob Tyner. But the venue continued to struggle as the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood did and soon closed for good.
As testament to the Vanity’s architectural and cultural importance, the ballroom was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 12, 1982. It is not considered such by the state of Michigan.
Today, the Vanity is hurting yet salvageable. It remains the last intact ballroom of Detroit’s great dance halls of the big band era of the early 1930s and late 1940s. It has largely been spared the ravages of scrappers and vandals, though its walls have crumbled in places, there is water damage in places and some of its paint has lost its luster. Its dance floor is mostly intact other than some buckled floorboards. Still, most of its ornate Aztec features remain. Its towering outdoor marquee, which had become rusted and worn, was removed in the early 1990s. Some of its architectural details were chiseled off and stolen.
It is owned by City Council also-ran Leroy Burgess, a Realtor who runs Burgess Realty of Detroit. He has said he envisions it being resurrected to its past glory, though there are no concrete plans in place.
In May 2008, the Vanity was included on a Preservation Detroit list of 10 endangered Detroit buildings. Since, however, the roof has continued to fail, and vandals and looters have hit the building hard. This temple to entertainment, meant to evoke the temples of ancient civilizations, is quickly following them into ruin.