Matilda Rausch Dodge Wilson, visionary founder of Music Hall, was born in Walkerton, Ontario in 1883, moving with her family to Detroit at the age of 1. In 1902 she graduated from the Gorsline Business College and went to work for the Dodge brothers, John and Horace, at their Hamtramck firm.
The professional relationship between John and Matilda developed into a personal one and in 1907, they married. In 1920, while in New York City on business, John contracted influenza and died. His brother Horace would die less than twelve months later, leaving the widows in charge of the firm. They sold it in 1925, becoming two of the wealthiest women in the country. That same year, Mrs. Dodge re-married Alfred G. Wilson, a lumber broker from Wisconsin.
With architect William Kapp in tow, the same architect who built her Rochester Hills mansion, they toured Europe and the great theaters of the day, intent on learning all they needed to know to create a state-of-the-art house here in Detroit. Mrs. Wilson chose to build a ‘legitimate’ theater - a theater designed for live stage and theatrical presentations. It was the age of the talkies and everyone believed that the movie industry would edge theatrical presentations out of the market, but she knew better.
The Wilson Theater opened on December 9, 1928 with a production of Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Rosalie.” Matilda’s vision went beyond these four walls, as her original mission specified welcoming men and women of all ethnicities to the theater’s audience and its stages. Her enduring example of inclusion and opportunity remain central to Music Hall's work today.
The Wilson Theater is significant as one of the best examples of early Art Deco architecture in Detroit. All of the theater's architectural sculpture was designed and executed by Corrado Parducci who, in a working partnership with Smith, Hinchman, Grylls, left a rich legacy of architectural sculpture in Detroit and throughout the country. His sculpture always comprised an integral part of the design of the building it adorned and never had the "applied" feeling which led many contemporary critics to scorn architectural ornament.
The theater is also significant for the diverse role it has played in the theatrical history of the city of Detroit. Built as a 'legitimate' theater, the Wilson attracted the best of touring Broadway productions, in addition to providing a forum for presentations of the Acting Company, the Shaw Festival, and the Young Vic. During the Depression, the theater only opened sporadically but still provided Detroiters with an opportunity to attend quality theater productions.
The Wilson was renamed Music Hall in 1946 when it became the home of the Detroit Symphony. The Symphony moved on to larger quarters in 1949, and in 1951 Music Hall became the home of Detroit's Cinerama. Michigan Opera Theater was launched at the Music Hall in 1971 and remained in residence until 1985. The building dodged the wrecking ball in 1974, thanks to the intervention of Detroit Renaissance, the Kresge Foundation and the Board of Trustees. A comprehensive renovation in 1995 restored each and every detail to its original design.
The theater has also become a center for the performing arts and has served as the stage for many new plays and musical, among them two top hits by Detroiters, "What the Wine Sellers Buy," and "Selma." With traditional drama, classical music, Cinerama, dance, jazz, and ethnic productions, the Wilson Theater has provided Detroit with five decades of vital entertainment.
The front (north) elevation has a dark marble base topped by beige Mankato stone to the height of the marquee. Above the marquee are six stone pilasters alternately surmounted by the masks of tragedy and comedy. These pilasters form a fenestration pattern which is composed of paired openings divided by slender engaged columns. The cornice line above the pilasters is covered by a green and tan mosaic. On either side of the pilasters is one bay of face brick which wraps around the corners of the building.
The east elevation features Mankato stone with face brick courses, topped by face brick, with some decorative brickwork at the cornice line. The other two facades are common brick. This exterior, a 1928 version of the modern, combines features of the Arts and Crafts style with early Art Deco.
The interior of the building is done in a Spanish Renaissance motif characteristic of the electicism of American architecture during the 1920s and 1930s. The auditorium section is designed so that all sight lines lead directly to the stage. Even though the theater seats 1800, the pitch of the first and second balconies creates an intimacy missing in most large theaters. The interior contains elaborate applied plaster, stenciling, and molded columns with Greek masks.
More historic photos and information coming soon.