Restored movie `temple' brings Detroit hope

Spotlights searched the skies as throngs of pedestrians stood outside hoping for a glimpse of their favorite celebrities. Inside, 5,000 well-bedecked guests munched on shrimp and Brie cheese. From the black-tie reception to the endless specials on local television, it seemed as if all Detroit was reveling in the grand reopening of the Fox Theatre this month. And indeed, if the boasts and promises of local promoters come true, there is plenty to celebrate, for the rebirth of the ``Fabulous Fox'' is seen as a linchpin in the slow revitalization of downtown Detroit.

Designed by the legendary movie palace architect, C. Howard Crane, the self-proclaimed ``Temple of Cinema Arts'' opened its doors in 1928 as a black-tie audience thronged to see the silent classic ``Street Angel,'' with Janet Gaynor.

For many, the Fox itself was the show. An almost-garish mix of Byzantine, Mideast, and Siamese themes, its 80-foot ceiling resembled a circus tent draping over walls covered with plaster gargoyles, colorful peacocks, and hand-laid tile.

In subsequent decades, the Fox steadily decayed. A year ago, it was a crumbling near-ruin, its ticket booth empty, the massive blood-red marble columns faded, the plaster-cast gargoyles cracked and chipped.

The fate of the Fox mirrored the surrounding neighborhood, Grand Circus Park. Parking lots and empty yards mark the space where restaurants, shops, hotels, and apartment buildings once stood. Most of those still standing are boarded up or converted to $5-a-day flophouses.

Then, in a surprise announcement last July, the Fox found a reprieve. Mike Illitch, a major Detroit entertainment promoter, and owner of the Little Caesar's Pizza chain and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, announced plans to buy the Fox and the attached office building and spend at least $15 million to restore them to their former grandeur.

He also bought many of the surrounding buildings and parking lots. In concert with another investor, Chuck Forbes, who has also been acquiring most of the land in a six-block stretch just off of the park, Mr. Illitch proposed the re-creation of a grand theater district.

There are three other, smaller theaters in various sizes and states of decay in a two-block radius of the Fox, several more within walking distance. Between Illitch and Mr. Forbes, two are already under active restoration; a third, the 500-seat Gem, may soon follow.

The theater district is at the northern edge of what is traditionally considered downtown Detroit. It is the anchor of what was once described as both ``the jewel'' and ``the spine'' of the city, Woodward Avenue, a route that effectively divides Detroit's east and west sides, and was long the main corridor to the suburbs.

Just as the old entertainment district has faded, so has much of Woodward. Two blocks north of the Fox, on the other side of Interstate 75, stands the shell of a building that once housed the headquarters of Motown Records. The next mile or so north has been dubbed ``Tumbleweed Gulch,'' a stretch of mostly empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

The emptiness is dotted with ``islands of hope,'' as one local businessman puts it. One of the brightest is Orchestra Hall. Considered one of the most acoustically perfect concert facilities in the country, Orchestra Hall was saved from the wrecking ball 17 years ago and is slowly rebuilding. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra expects to make the facility its permanent headquarters soon.

Directly across Woodward sits one of the largest medical center complexes in the country, which will soon grow again with the addition of a major new, 500-bed Veterans Administration hospital.

Still farther north, restaurants have begun to open, including the elegant and high-priced Whitney, housed in the multimillion-dollar restoration of the former home of David Whitney, one of the city's earliest and most extravagant industrialists.

``I've owned the Whitney building for 10 years, but I waited [until 1986] until I felt the time was right to open it,'' says Richard P. Kughn, a successful Detroit-based developer and the Whitney's current owner. ``Over the past three years, tremendous things have happened in the Woodward corridor.''

Such a bold statement draws mixed reactions from many in Detroit. Indeed, Illitch concedes that his plan to revive the Fox received a lot of skepticism from the metro Detroit business community, where many had long ago written off the central city in favor of the booming suburbs. ``They were kind about it, but I could just read it in their eyes,'' he recalls. ``They felt, maybe I had ... bit off too much this time.''

But while Illitch admits he has ``fallen heavier and heavier in love'' with the grand theater - often described as one of the most magnificent in the country - ``we've got to remember we're business people and it was a business decision.''

And as far as he is concerned, the time is right to move back into Detroit. He has backed up that belief by deciding to move the central office of the Little Caesar's chain to the adjacent office building early next year. It will mark the first time a major corporate headquarters has moved back to the city from the suburbs in more than 27 years.

``A lot of people are looking at Little Caesar's,'' says Emmett Moten, former head of the city's Community and Economic Development office.

As a current city planner notes, with only publicly funded projects, the long-hoped-for revival of downtown Detroit would have to be put on hold. It would take corporate investment and involvement to put the Motor City's revitalization into gear.

There are still many barriers to a Woodward revival. The mostly white residents who have fled the city for the suburbs often cite fear of drug-related crime as a prime reason for staying away from downtown.

That concern can't be easily overcome, admits Paul Ganson, president of Orchestra Hall, but the restored theaters can help, particularly in the well-patrolled Woodward corridor.

``We had 18 events here our first year in 1976, and 10,000 people came,'' Mr. Ganson says. ``Last year, we had over 150 events and over 250,000 people. If Detroit is going to attract people and maintain a vitality, it will be through places like this.''

Another problem: There is virtually no housing in the Woodward corridor. In the blocks on other side of the avenue stand many formerly elegant town houses and even a neighborhood of Victorian mansions, known as Brush Park. Most of it, particularly near the theaters, is decrepit and would need tremendous infusions of capital to be restored.

But Detroit banks have, until recently, been very reluctant to invest in the inner city, a view that may be changing. Earlier this year, a coalition of civic leaders mounted a media campaign that publicly embarrassed Detroit banking officials.

The coalition noted that in 1987, one of the largest banks, Comerica, authorized just $44 million in loans to Detroit residents and developers. By 1990, that figure is expected to grow to $102 million, with the increase coming in five key areas. In 1987, Comerica provided no funds for development projects in the city. This year, it will provide $27 million for large development projects and $2 million for small ones. By 1990, the figures will climb to $30 million and $8 million, respectively.

Other local banks have promised similar increases.

Until now, Forbes magazine says, ``the banks have not done what I thought they ought to have done, but that is changing. One just approved financing that will take me as far as I can go with what I plan for this area.''

Illitch estimates that the total investment needed to revitalize the theater district will be about $200 million. So far, he and other developers, along with the city, have pumped in about $50 million.

Mr. Moten, the former city planning official, says the suburbs continue to get the lion's share of capital and that ``we still bleed'' from corporations and jobs fleeing the city. And he admits that Detroit is likely to continue lagging behind other major cities in terms of suburbanites returning to the core.

But for the first time in years, he insists, the picture is beginning to brighten. Such words are not just being spoken by city officials hoping to mollify their constituents, but also by those who will have to lead the reinvestment efforts needed to sponsor the long-dormant plans.

``You're going to see a lot more of the property being developed,'' Mr. Kughn promises. ``Within the next decade, you will not recognize Woodward Avenue.''

Theater restorer's `urban tools'

With opening night just hours away, Ray Shepardson was everywhere at once, checking a myriad of final details. ``Nervous? No, I don't get jitters,'' he joked, wiping some sweat from his brow with the ever-present white towel wrapped around his neck.

Indeed, the $8 million Fox project is old hat for Mr. Shepardson, considered the nation's premier restorer of antique movie palaces. He calls his theaters ``urban tools. They can change an urban environment. The most positive thing you can do is to restore an old movie palace and then actually use it.''

Shepardson restored his first theater nearly 20 years ago in his hometown in Cleveland. It's now the center of a vital entertainment district that's a national model.

``Movies aren't the same,'' he says. ``The whole illusion is created on the screen. That wasn't always the case. The building and how it was presented used to be a significant part of the show.'' With the Fox in shape, he's off to San Antonio go give a face-lift to another relic of the past.

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