When it opened in 1928, the Grande Ballroom was a popular venue for west Detroiters to enjoy jazz and dance to big band music. Then, four decades later, the Grande achieved immortal status in the annals of psychedelic rock history. Finally closing its doors in 1972, the abandoned ballroom has collapsed into decay and taken its place among Detroit’s incredible modern ruins. Now, Leo Early has catalogued the Grande Ballroom’s history, in the ultimate living memory of this important piece of Detroit history.
Designed by Detroit engineer and architect Charles N. Agree, the Grande started life as a multi-purpose building incorporating retail businesses on the first floor and a large dance hall upstairs. When it opened back in Detroit’s heyday, and the jazz was in full swing, the Grande Ballroom was famed for its outstanding sprung hardwood dance floor, which took up most of the second storey.
But the decline of big band prompted local high school teacher and DJ Russ Gibb to buy the Grande in 1966, by then used only for storage. Envisioning a psychedelic rock venue similar to San Francisco’s Fillmore Theater, Gibb worked closely with Detroit counterculture figure John Sinclair to revive the ailing ballroom for a hungry new audience. Providing a home for young psychedelic rock bands forming in Detroit’s countercultural Plum Street arts neighbourhood, house bands included MC5, The Thyme and The Stooges.
The Grande Ballroom became a counterculture hub for some of the biggest national and international acts of the era, including Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck, Cream and The Who, as well as avant garde jazz artists John Coltrane and Sun Ra. But its tenure was as short lived as the Plum Street community itself, and four decades after Gibb closed the Grande in 1972, the historic ballroom stands abandoned, a reminder of Detroit’s proud past, and coveted by urban explorers.
Abandoned but not forgotten, Leo Early of TheGrandBallroom.com has compiled a fascinating history of the Grande, from the early jazz years to the rock and roll acts that made it famous. Featuring historic photographs, gigology and a discography of live recordings, TheGrandBallroom.com is the historic venue’s definitive online presence. According to the website, Leo’s book, “Ghosts of the Grande – a complete history of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom”, is in the works, so keep checking back for updates. (John Sinclair remains active on the spoken word scene, above.)
The Grande Ballroom was west Detroit’s main music venue. It’s sister, the Vanity Ballroom, also designed by Charles Agree, entertained the east side.