Lost Cultural Venues of Detroit: I Was There

willis

In the late 1960’s, when I was in high school, I started to explore the city.  I don’t drive, but I do get around.  Most of my travels were on the bus. Early on, I’d go to programs in Detroit’s Cultural Center.  The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library and Wayne State University all had good exhibitions and events.  I’d hang out downtown as well.  I started to frequent the art galleries.

When I was a bit older, in college, I’d go to the bars and clubs a bit more.

I was obsessed with films and film history early on.  I’ll go into this in depth in my Cinema blog.  Suffice to say that not only was I going out and seeing films.  I was showing them.

You could borrow films from the library.  I’d organize film programs for children at the Monteith Branch Library, where I worked.  Then I’d borrow films to show at our coffee-house.

I was always very involved with Detroit’s underground and alternative movie house scene.

catacombsmaller

Art by Bill Bryan, color by Maurice Greenia, Jr. / circa 1970’s.

The Catacombs Coffee House was the first utopian art space which I was involved with.  I’ll write an entire post about it eventually.  It ran from the early 1970’s into the early 1980’s. I think that it was open for around ten years.

Several nationally famous performers got their start there.  The same is true for a number of Detroit musicians, performers and artists, including myself.  I was also part of the crew that booked the shows, ran the kitchen and kept the whole thing going.

It was magical and vibrantly eclectic.  Programs included films, jazz, rock, poetry, comedy, theatre and more.  It attracted huge crowds from all over the Detroit area.

The Catacombs was held in a church basement in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers community.  The neighborhood was lively.

One of its other treasures was the Concerts by the River series.

This great Summer concert series featured a strong line-up of Detroit jazz, blues and gospel performers.

The Vanity Ballroom was also in that neighborhood.  I saw jazz shows there.  I saw the Stooges and the MC5 play there.  I had to leave partway through the MC5’s set, alas.  It was 3 or 4am and I was 16 or 17.  I could only stretch my curfew just so far.  Later on, I was also part of a film crew which filmed part of a movie there.

The Cinderella Theatre was there too.  It was an old movie theatre which was briefly a rock club.  I was there when the J. Geils Band recorded a live album there.

concertsbytheriver

So many of Detroit’s annual outdoor festivals are gone.  I went to all of them.  I especially miss the Festival of the Arts.  Thank goodness that the Concert of Colors and the Detroit Jazz Festival are still going strong.

The Fourth Street Fair was the second utopian art experience in which I was involved.  This was a one day annual block fair.  It started small and kept getting bigger and bigger.  When the final fair was held, in 2007, there were four stages on different parts of the block.  The crowds got bigger and bigger too.

For fifteen years I helped with the fair.  I’d help set up the stage, do cleanup the next day and so on.  Eventually, I’d perform there with the Don’t Look Now Jug Band, the Space Band and my puppet thing.  It was an eclectic mix of Detroit performers including a lot of rock music. It was always an essential Summer party.

The third utopian art group I joined was centered around the Zeitgeist Space on Michigan. It was another lively, magical scene. It was primarily a theatre and an art gallery, yet we branched out into presenting music, cinema, poetry and communal painting as performance art.

The late Jacques Karamanoukian ran Galerie Jacques in Ann Arbor. He was also connected with the Zeitgeist and with Rabbles Coffee House in St. Clair Shores.  He added a lot to the scene.

I was very  involved with the Zeitgeist.  I’d help put up and take down the exhibits, help publicize our activities, help clean up and help decorate the building with art.

Over the years, there were often solid live performances at other art galleries as well, including  the Willis Gallery and the Johanson Charles Gallery.

In these special, magical scenes, there was always a group of dedicated planners and workers at the core.  Then, if you’re lucky, there’s some sort of support group and an alert and responsive audience.

freezerpoets

Art by Brian Taylor.

There were many great spots where I’d hang out and sometimes get to perform myself as well.  At first, this involved reading my poetry. Then in 1988, I started doing puppet shows. In 1992, I joined a band.  In 1998, I helped found a second band.

Cobb’s Corner was a wild scene.  I didn’t get by there very often. Yet I went to poetry readings, art shows and some musical shows there.

Alvin’s had so many great events and bands.  There were mostly local acts yet some great national acts as well, big names.  I think that the last time I saw Sun Ra perform was at Alvin’s.  I was with the Don’t Look Now Jug Band when we opened for the late Vic Chesnutt.  I did puppets at Alvin’s as well.

I only got by the Song Shop and the Grinning Duck Club a few times. Both were always a treat to visit.  They were unique.

404 West Willis, Zoots and the Art Center Music School were also regular hangouts.  I’d go for shows and sometimes be on the bill myself.

I was more involved with the Freezer Theatre than most.  I started to hang out there when it was a poetry and theatre club. This was in the early 1980’s.  I was less involved in its last days, when it became a hard-core punk rock club.  I got by a few of those shows.

I saw the Talking Heads, Stephane Grappelli and much more at the Punch and Judy Theatre in Grosse Pointe.  I saw my share of live music, including both local and national/ international performers.

I got to the Gold Dollar around ten times.  I performed there just once, doing a live soundtrack to a movie starring my puppet troupe.

I went to the after hours jazz at the Rappa House a few times.  I kept getting more and more into jazz and blues.

I’d go to outdoor events like the Belle Isle Kite-In, the Unity in the Community Concert Series at Clark Park, the Detroit Rock & Roll Revival at the State Fairgrounds and the Goose Lake International Music Festival.

There are plenty of other places I could mention.  There are other stories to tell.  I’ll save some for later.  Then too, there are a few places I’d go to as a young man that are still active now including the Scarab Club and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.  I’m hoping that strong new places and new scenes will arise and thrive soon.

 

 

 

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