Monday, March 21, 2011

The Mighty Motor City - Part 3: The National Theatre

- The interior remains of The National Theatre in Detroit.

In the 1960's, being able to communicate with others via a hand held device was the fantasy of Star Trek episodes. These days, not only can you call someone from the phone in your pocket, but you can browse the internet and watch movies too. You're connected with a vast network of people and entertainment options all at your fingertips. If you can't stand the small screen of a smart phone, you can shell out your hard earned money to see a blockbuster at your local movie theatre. However, in the days before 3D glasses, HD video and surround sound - the live theatre was king. And while it's not dead, it was once the preeminent form of entertainment in Western culture. Its popularity was reflected in the vast amount of venues built to house it, many of which featured beautiful architecture. In Detroit, the ruins of one forgotten theatre echo that past.

The National was our third stop of the day during our Mighty Motor City trip. Despite an attempt to board it up and seal it off from the outside, the building's beauty still emanated prominently on the street corner. At one point in time, it was at the center of an entire theatre district. Now, it's abandoned and connected to a parking garage.

It had opened originally in 1911, an 800 seat theatre showcasing live vaudeville variety shows. As the Roaring 20's came about, The National transitioned to showcasing the rising popularity of motion pictures. Considered small by comparison to nearby movie houses, the theatre transitioned to live burlesque shows and was renamed "The National Burlesk Theatre."

- The National with its shining lights and "Burlesk" moniker in 1966. Photograph from

The stripteases provided by burlesque dancers failed to bring in customers like the nudity of strip clubs did. As topless bars were becoming more and more common on the American landscape, burlesque died out. The National was renamed "The Palace" and began showing pornographic films by early 1970. The neighborhood around it had become rough and most neighboring storefronts were closed. By 1975, The Palace saw its last guests and would never operate a show again. The building did find its way onto the National Register of Historic Places while the block around it was demolished for a parking garage. As of today, there are no plans to renovate or demolish the theatre.

- The National's doors and lobby are sealed off from the outside world by a wall of plywood.

The nearby parking meter where my car sat had only 45 minutes left on it. A gentleman down the street washing his parked car in the 30 degree weather and a homeless woman that wouldn't stop trying to start a conversation had delayed us from going in. When the car was cleaned off (as clean as you can make a rusty, 1994 Nissan Pathfinder) and the homeless woman moved on, we finally made our way into the lobby of The National. Unfortunately, there were two problems. One, the nearby car washer and the homeless woman had ate up a lot of my meter time and I had no more quarters left. Two, the theatre was pitch black. To get any halfway decent pictures, it was going to require flashlights and long exposures, a time consuming process. Not too familiar with Detroit's parking enforcement laws and not wanting to risk getting a ticket, I wanted to be back to the car before the meter expired. Gozer and I kept tripping over debris as we shared a flashlight. I set up the camera, aimed, focused and light painted for 30 seconds. I couldn't see it with my own eyes, but the camera revealed something beautiful:

- Inside the National Theatre.

As our eyes adjusted and the flashlight lit the room, we were awestruck. The seats were gone and the balconies were nearly falling off the walls, but the amount of detail and ornamentation put in from the original construction still remained in some spots. In the lobby, the doors were decorated just as they had been in 1911 and the ticket booth still remained.

Plaster from the ceiling and bricks from the walls had fallen all over the floor. The building has been slowly crumbling for nearly 36 years. The theatre says more about how our culture has changed over the past century than most words probably could.

- Besides that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

With time running low, we carefully crept up the wooden staircases. Downstairs we had seen evidence of someone who had been squatting there, if they were up here we didn't want to disturb them. The upper lobby was completely exposed to the outside. The glass window above the theatre's marquee was gone,revealing a Detroit that was quite different from the Detroit 100 years ago when The National was built.

We cautiously made our way to the upper balcony where I snapped the first photo seen in this article. I didn't want to test and see if the side balconies would hold my weight, but Gozer and I did run to the top of the theatre. There, a projection room that once showed all kinds of movies, and later solely pornographic ones, remained - albeit it mostly empty.

- Stairs in The National Theatre.

We were out of time. I could hear a lot of people on the sidewalk outside, just below the open window. That posed a slight problem as they were standing right where we would be making our exit. The cameras were secured, we exited through the lobby just as countless patrons had done before us and made our way back to the streets. I took a quick glance outside the fence and determined that the people right by the exit probably would be more confused than concerned when I literally crawled out onto the sidewalk. I knew the gamble paid off when the family standing on the street corner gave me a strange look. "Hey! How ya doing," I said as I smiled and walked to the Corolla Rager and Gozer came crawling out behind me. "Doing just fine," said the man with the confused look on his face.

- The National as it appeared in the summer of 2009. Photograph by Al Duce of

Parts I and II of "The Mighty Motor City."

1 comment:

  1. Stunning pictures as ever, incredible how amazing it still looks from the outside, hopefully they'll save the facade if nothing else.