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Home > Magazine > Towns > Fun Fixing up the Detroit Opera House

Fun Fixing up the Detroit Opera House
January 05, 2002

I'm a cautious, stick-to-my-rut kinda guy, so the wildest thing I did this year was to get off my butt and say Yes when my friend David asked for help in building a stage in a huge, old theatre in downtown Detroit. A bunch of other pals said Yes, too. We showed up and were shown the ambitious things we were to do. Then plunged in and worked our fool butts off, then got fed and watered. What a rewarding, refreshing experience it was, being part of such a team, a great change of pace for this computer geek!

But you gotta check out this place we worked on. Run down and abandoned, but it was one of the finest show houses in its day. Why, U2 played there just ten years ago. But she went downhill fast, with falling plaster and gaping holes. Totally gothic for us with hanging work lights throwing shadows on the vaulted ceilings 200 feet overhead. 'All' we did was put up a stage and prep an area for David's post-modern urban decay play. Killer setting.

When I'd finished my chores, others weren't done. So I thought I'd do a little exploring. I went behind the huge, old velvet curtain and almost fell 3 stories in the dark, through the flimsy rotted flooring. You could see down to water below. 15 stories up you could see sky and pigeons. Crazy doors with little railways opened out into nowhere way up there...like they were for carting circus elephants out onto fancy towers. Awesome faded glory.

Then I went to the back, up to the third balcony. To highest, blackest part. Since it was summer in an unventilated building, it was hot. I found a door. Which led up. A few yellow work lights on a string lit up here and there. I went up, up. To a projection room full of huge old projectors and reels. A door up there opened out to...gaping space. No fire escape. Just a skyscraper high fall out into the bright day. Yikes.

A door led out of the room. I saw a walkway and timbers and blackness, interspersed with yellow bulbs, stretching out forever. The catwalks. I gingerly walked out. Gapped floorboards flexing. I could see thru the ceiling to the balcony 50 feet below. I went out further. I saw another projection room out in the stifling hot dark. The plaster floor in this booth was rotted away. 2x4's led out to more catwalks. I went further out. The walk swayed from its rebar supports hung snuggly over the reverse curves of the majestic old plaster ceiling vaults. I walked past stained-glass skylights curving in huge reverses up past the catwalk. The yellow lights strung out further. Another 50 feet out I came to a ribboned-off area where one side of the catwalk was missing...so was the ceiling below. I leaned out and looked down thru the rebar. ...To my friends looking like ants, 200 feet below! Yow! I scampered back.

...And said nothing to the already-worried-about-a-million-things-including-our-very-tenuous-safety David. But what a thrill! Who could've thought I'd ever get to do such a thing?

The Detroit Opera House has since been totally rebuilt. But after we built our stage, David's theatre company had a couple shows of their Grotesco performances. It was a wonderful play about subterranean French sewer dwellers with wild foam rubber muscle suits and strange motley hags.

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