Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway,
Detroit, MI 48201

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Capitol Theatre

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Capitol Theater was considered Detroit’s first official movie palace, and when it opened in 1922, it sat about 3,500, the fifth largest ever built in the US at the time.

Its architect, C. Howard Crane, designed the Capitol Theater in the style of the Italian Renaissance, and its facade, with its soaring Corinthian columns, loomed over Broadway like a royal palace. Its interior was even more ornate, with several kinds of marble, Tiffany mosaics, sculpture and gilt decorating its lobby and other areas. The Capitol is said to have cost over $2 million to build.

The 35-piece ‘Great Capitol Wonder Orchestra’, led by Eduard Werner, was on hand opening day, and remained a popular feature of the theater until he left the Capitol Theater for the Michigan Theater in 1926. On screen, “The Lotus Eater” was shown, as well as footage of guests entering the theater two hours earlier, much to the audience’s amazement and delight.

The theater’s name was changed to the Paramount Theater in 1929, when it was taken over by the Paramount-Publix chain, and featured live stage shows and vaudeville acts. Stars who appeared on the Paramount’s stage in those days included W.C. Fields, Fatty Arbuckle, and Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra.

As a result of the Depression, the theater closed in 1932, but only until 1934, when it reopened under United Detroit Theaters with another new name, this time the Broadway-Capitol Theater.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, management of the theater passed back and forth between various parties, but it was managed by United Detroit once again beginning in 1960.

For most of the 1950’s, the Broadway-Capitol Theater featured second-run films and double-features, and unlike many other area theaters, did not convert to the widescreen format to attract audiences.

It was in 1960 that United Detroit poured over $100,000 into remodeling the theater, completely changing its facade and slightly reducing its seating capacity.

It was also given yet another new name during this time, the Grand Circus Theater, continuing to screen second-run films. The theater often struggled during the 1960’s and 1970’s, but remained open until 1978, with the last film on its screen being “Jailbait Babysitter”.

During the early-to-mid-1980’s, the Grand Circus Theater was used for concerts, but was forced to close in 1985 after a fire broke out.

In 1989, the Michigan Opera Theatre purchased the Grand Circus Theater and nearby Madison Theater for $3.5 million and began a $20 million campaign to restore the interior of the old Capitol Theater to its 1920’s appearance, enlarge its stage, improve the sound and lighting systems, and reduce seating to a more comfortable 2,700.

It now serves as the Detroit Opera House.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 15 comments)

sdoerr on August 7, 2004 at 12:59 am

On the 4th, the Opera House cafe suffered a minor fire as reported in this article in Crain’s

scottfavareille on August 7, 2004 at 1:46 pm

According to the film “Badassss”, the legendary blaxploitation film, “Sweet Sweetbacks Badasss Song” premiered here in 1970.

DavidF on October 26, 2007 at 10:11 pm

I toured this theater yesterday and it’s a beauty. Marvelously restored, with a really harmonious color scheme. Worth a visit if you’re in Detroit.

krobinson on February 3, 2011 at 12:57 am

Opera House is having a very important place in Detroit History. This has been the sole venue for all of the Michigan Opera Theater Productions and for other events as well, is the fifth largest theater in the world during the time when it was built. The building is just gorgeous, every seat on the main floor provides a good view. The staff is really very friendly they direct you very nicely and help whenever you need.

CSWalczak on February 3, 2011 at 1:42 am

“This has been the sole venue for all of the Michigan Opera Theater Productions”? Not by a long shot. Since its first full length production in 1970 until it moved into its present location in 1996, the Detroit Opera Theater performed in a variety of Detroit venues including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Masonic Auditorium, the Fisher Theatre, and most especially, the Music Hall, which was its home for many years and was the first former movie theater that the DOT restored and saved from demolition. Whoever wrote that Detroit History article is very misinformed.

Also, that picture above is a little misleading; it shows really what is the rear wall of the theater, part of the new stagehouse that was part of the renovation of the former Grand Circus into the Detroit Opera House.

The tragedy though, is that so many other once nearby similarly grand palaces – especially the Madison, the Michigan, the United Artists, and the Adams – are either gone or probably beyond rehabilitation.

bethg on October 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Detroit Theatre lovers – I am looking for any information on C. Howard Crane’s archives which I believe were once held by architect Louis E. Wiltse. If anyone knows how to find Wiltse or the archives please let me know. Thanks!

CSWalczak on October 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm

bethg: You may have already discovered this, but Maria DiChiera did her Master’s Thesis at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 on the theaters of Crane (it is available online here. Her work extensively cites Wiltse’s archive. I think it is likely that she is related to, possibly the daughter of, David DiChiera, the Director of the Detroit Opera Theater. Possibly you might be able to locate her through the MOT Director’s office, and she may know how to locate Wiltse or where the archives might now reside.

Wiltse’s offices were at 6300 Shasabaw Rd. in Clarkston, MI. His company is dissolved, but perhaps, if the building, which houses a number of professional offices, is still under the same management that it was at the time when Wiltse was there is still in charge or retained records, they might be able to help. I am sure one of the existing tenants could tell you how to locate the management.

bethg on October 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Thank you CSWalczak! I am an employee at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.. and we are much like your lovely Fox in Detroit. I did come across Ms. DiChiera’s work.. and realized that Mr. Crane had records on our theatre! Crane was brought in to assist the original architect of our theatre- Olivier Vinour after William Fox took an interest in the auditorium the Atlanta Shriners were building. It was with Mr. Crane’s help that our humble shrine became a great Fox Theatre. Thanks again!

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on November 11, 2013 at 10:28 am

According to the website the Capitol opened with a 3 manual, 38 rank Hillgreen – Lane pipe organ. It seems very odd that a theatre of this quality should have had an organ from a distinctly second (if not third) tier organ builder. If the website is correct and the original cost was only $8000, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the chandeliers in the theatre didn’t cost more than the organ.

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