Eastown Theatre

8041 Harper neat the intersection of Harper and Van Dyke  on Detroit’s East Side

This movie palace was an important location for the tremendous contributions that Detroit artists made to this development of Rock and Roll music.  Detroit has a very longstanding tradition of musical innovations.  The nation’s cultural history is richer and deeper because of the  contributions of many artists from the Motor City.  The 1970s were not good years for Detroit economy, but there was a vibrant music business in the city at that time.

This theater was conceived just before the Great Depression.  In the 1920s, many fortunes were made in the movie industry by individuals who built or purchased numerous theaters and then contracted with the Hollywood film producers to show movies to large audiences in their many theaters, each of them with a couple of thousand seats or more.  This theater was built for the Wisper and Westman firm of movie houses.  I believe they used an architectural firm from outside Detroit that specialized in theaters,  V. J. Waiver and Company.  I do not know of any other building in Detroit designed by V. J. Waiver.  In the 1920s, the largest movie houses were built to suggest a kind of fantasy land where patrons could easily forget their jobs and mundane chores.  I believe that C. Howard Crane started the practice of incorporating very foreign elements into the design of huge theaters.  You can use a variety of adjectives to describe the impressive but eclectic styling of this east side masterpiece—Renaissance Revival, Spanish Baroque, Neo-classical or even Italian Baroque.  I presume that architect wanted to design a memorable and imaginative building, but certainly not a structure that would remind a patron of a governmental building, a church, a school or a factory.

The building opened on  October 1, 1931 with a showing of Clark Gable in Sporting Blood.   It sat just under 2,500 patrons.  Movies were shown here until the mid-1960s when demographic changes—a poorer and smaller population on the East Side—and marketing changes—the building of smaller and more flexible multi-screen theaters in and near suburban malls—made many or most of the several thousand-seat central city theaters unprofitable.  This was especially true for the very large ones that required so much energy for heat and air conditioning.

The Eastown Theater stood out as a place of creativity and financial activity from 1969 through 1971;  those who contributed most to Detroit’s key role in the emergence  of Rock and Roll.   And the national stars of that music all played at Eastlawn, many of them several times.  These included Detroiter Alice Cooper, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Jefferson Airplanes, Detroiter Bob Segar, Jethro Tull and the Grateful Dead.  There were, at this time, two great centers for Rock and Roll music in Detroit.  The Grande Ballroom on the west side apparently drew a hippie crown.  The Easttown appealed to a quite different audience—blue-collar workers, many of them from the auto industry.  It is easy to overlook the significance of Rock and Roll as an art form in the history of the United States.

From the perspective of the more enlightened and much more straight-laced Twenty-first Century, it is  difficult to appreciate how extensively hard drugs and marijuana were consumed at rock concerts in the 1970s.  It is a wonder that so many patrons survived.  Using lots of drugs at concerts in that era was about as common as having a beer at a baseball game.  Apparently, drug dealers from around the metropolis marketed their products extensively at rock concerts at the Eastown.  Several patrons apparently died of the substances they purchased or consumed there.  Neighbors on the East Side regularly complained to the police about the loud noise, drunkenness and misbehavior of patrons as they went to or came out of the Eastlawn, including the tendency of some to shed their clothes on warm nights after leaving a concert.  Early in 1971, the Detroit Free Press sent reporters to concerts at the Eastland.  The reporters  described how very easy it was to purchase what merchants claimed were amphetamines,  barbiturates, cocaine, heroin, LSD and mescaline.   Pharmacological tests later revealed that quite a few of the dealers were misrepresenting their merchandise.  Marijuana, at this time,  was so widely consumed that it apparently did not merit the attention of investigative reporters. Coming under tremendous pressure for nearby residents, Mayor Roman Gibbs closed the Eastlawn in late 1971.  He cited health and safety violations.  Apparently, the Eastown frequently welcomed more than 3,000 patrons when fire regulations limited patronage to a substantially lower figure.  The owners of the Eastown protested, but Mayor Gibbs had evidence of regular violations of city ordinances.

After being closed for about two years, the Eastown reopened in 1973 under new management with a performance by the REO Speedwagon.  There were similar complaints about the misbehavior of those who enjoyed the east side rock concerts.   In addition, there were numerous reports by patrons of the theaters who were apparently victimized by crimes committed by residents of the area.   The market for that music was also declining, racial conflict was growing,  and in 1977, the Eastown closed again.  There may have been police and civic pressures to close it, but I do not think that Mayor Coleman Young ordered it shut in a manner similar to the action of Mayor Roman Gibbs.

Early in the 1980s, the theater was renamed the Showcase and used for displaying adult films.  However, the popularity of DVDs and the availability of low-cost DVD players led to the eventual closing of almost every adult moving picture emporium in the country.

Subsequently, the Detroit Center for the Performing Arts took over the building and used it to stage professional theatrical productions, shows for children and to offer acting workshops.  Realizing the magnificence of the building and its history in Detroit, they intended to raise several million to refurbish the structure and make it into an east side center for the performing arts.  They were unsuccessful and terminated their use of the structure prior to 1990s.

The building included a series of apartments.  In the late 1990s, a church took over the building, presumably with hopes of converting the great structure for their use while renting the apartments to members of the congregation.  This strategy continued for a few years, but by 2004, the giant structure was abandoned.  In August, 2010, arsonists apparently set fire to the massive Eastown Theater Building and destroyed part of it.  Very shortly thereafter, city inspectors decided that it was a danger to safety and not redeemable. They ordered that it be razed.

Architect: V. J. Waiver and Company
Date of Completion: 1930
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival with numerous Baroque and neoclassical elements
Use in 2010:  The City of Detroit announced that it will be razed.
Website with description of building: http://www.buildingsofdetroit.com/places/east
Website describing movie palaces: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/2075/
Website for music firm continuing the Eastlawn tradition: http://www.eastlawnrecords.com/releases.htm
Book describing the history of Rock and Roll Music in Detroit: Grits, Noise and Revolution, David A. Carson (Ann Arbor,
University of Michigan Press

State of Michigan Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites:  Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; September 11, 2010


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