If Walls Could Talk, Detroit’s Grande Ballroom Would Surely Sing
By Jennifer Young
When Charles N. Agree designed his Art Deco dance hall for entrepreneurial partners Edward J. Strata and Edward J. Davis, he probably never envisioned that a shock rocker named Alice Cooper would be fooling with a live chicken on its stage, but one thing about the Grande—its story could almost be described as a textbook example of identity crisis.
At one point during its history, it even served as a roller rink. Agree and his clients built the Grande Ballroom at 8952 Grand River Avenue in 1928 to give Detroit a place to dance. While initially a venue for jazz and big band sounds, the legendary ballroom would ultimately be dubbed the ‘birthplace of punk’ and grew up to become an amp-strewn venue for rock-and-roll acts like Janis Joplin, The Who, Pink Floyd and a gloriously denim-clad, angelic young Celt named Robert Plant and his little old band called Led Zeppelin.
Before the Grande became synonymous with the Detroit rock scene, it enjoyed a glamorous reputation as one of the city’s premier dance halls. Eastern Detroit had the Vanity Ballroom, but the west had the Grande with its Moorish arches, blade marquee, and hardwood dance floor that could accommodate as many as 1,500 dancers. The Grande Ballroom is a square-shaped two-story building; its lower level originally provided storefront space, enough room for up to six retailers, including a department store. The upper level was devoted to dance hall space. Upon its completion, dancers arrived eager to dance to the music of big bands or jazz acts.
The ballroom remained essentially unchanged until the end of WWII. Big band sounds were waning and jazz evolved into music you listened to—not danced to. The then-owners of the Grande, Mr. and Mrs. John T. Hayes, were determined to ignore shifts in entertainment tastes. As music lovers and teeny boppers turned to jukeboxes, records, and Elvis, the Grande remained stubbornly committed to foxtrot and waltz. Before men could invite a partner to cha-cha on the Grande’s dance floor, they had to adorn themselves in a dress shirts, sports coats, and ties.
Eventually, ballroom dancing couldn’t keep the Grande afloat and the dancing all but stopped there by the early 1960s. During this period, it was used as a roller rink and then as a storage warehouse for mattresses. Yet, far from being the last chapter in the Grande’s dynamic story, the sixties proved to be transformational. Social studies teacher and local radio DJ Russ Gibb (who died this past spring at the age of 87) made it his quest to create a rock venue in Detroit on par with the West Coast’s Fillmore and Whiskey A Go-Go. He chose the Grande Ballroom and in 1966, about 60 people showed up to hear The MC5 and Chosen Few.
It didn’t take long for the Grande to become a haven for counter culture. Gibb, who rented the space for about $700 per month, turned the venue into the hippest rock-and-roll scene in the city, complete with its own strobe light, one of the largest ever built at the time. For only $5, rock-hungry teens and young adults could indulge in a psychedelic experience, listening to two or three local acts before the main stars like Cream or The Grateful Dead took the stage.
During its rock-and-roll heyday, the Grande Ballroom would host the likes of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Yardbirds, Chuck Berry, Velvet Underground, Tim Buckley, the Steve Miller Band, and so many other rock legends.
When a young Iggy Pop ascended its stage, its reputation as an iconic punk venue was born. Ultimately, the majestic Grande Ballroom, cool and hip as it was, closed its doors to the music in 1972. Gibb was making bigger money booking acts at larger venues in other cities.
Sadly, left to decay, the once-hallowed dance hall is no longer a sanctuary for anything, except perhaps a roosting pigeon or dove. If you ever pass by the now boarded-up rock mecca, you, too, like so many others, may find yourself coveting a bit of plaster or chunk of its stately columns because, after all, it’s a relic of our music history and, lest we forget, on a beautiful May evening 1969 (of course it was beautiful), Robert Plant crooned “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” on the Grande’s stage, making all the girls sigh, swoon, and groove in a perfect rock-and-roll dream.