Tomb Raider

Photos from August 2007, and June 2010.

To those of us who are inclined to be excited by such things, the Vanity Ballroom on Detroit's far east side was one of those distant, unapproachable holy grails that seemed like it would never show any kind of weakness to let a curious explorer inside. I think I had seen a few photos of the inside that indicated that it had once been open back in like 2000 or something, but that must have been a brief window indeed because I never saw a single chink in the armor.


Not that I even bothered watching the Vanity all that hard anyway, since I never expected to find it open, and we never quite worked up the stomach to snip our way in. Besides, there was also a guy nearby who was actively keeping an eye on it.

So when I finally did get inside in 2007 it was almost more depressing than exciting. I really wished that this one would have stayed sealed than I be able to get to see the inside, because I knew then that the place would probably be destroyed by the rapidly growing number of "urban explorers" and scrappers who were hot on the abandoned building beat by that time. But it was rapidly proving to be a lack of roof maintenance rather than exposure to thieves and vandals by which the place was being destroyed.


Built in 1929 at the very end of the Roaring Twenties, the Vanity was Detroit's last public ballroom and designed by one of the city's premier Art-Deco architects, Charles N. Agree. It was one of the palatial ballrooms that were being opened in Detroit in the 1920s to accommodate the burgeoning number of bands and musicians, as well as the demand to see live performances by a burgeoning middle class.

Before the building boom ended with Black Tuesday, Detroit saw the rise of the Graystone Ballroom, the Grande Ballroom, the Majestic/Crystal Ballroom, the Jefferson Beach Ballroom, the Mirror Ballroom, The Campus Ballroom, the Monticello Ballroom, and the Vanity Ballroom. Only four of those still remain standing in the city.


The Vanity's grand opening came, ironically, on the night before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, signaling the start of the Great Depression. I flipped through the rest of the newspaper from that day, and scanned over the other things that were simultaneously occurring at that particularly fateful point in history...the Ambassador Bridge and Windsor Tunnel were being pushed to completion, Thomas Edison had just visited Dearborn to mark "Light's Golden Jubilee" as well as the opening of his friend Henry Ford's museum and Greenfield Village, Evergreen Road was being paved, one headline declared "Trend to Suburbs Seen Growing in U.S.," major railroad work was going on in Royal Oak, huge modern schools were opening in Pontiac, telephone infrastructure was being expanded, the feds were gearing up for the 1930 census, and plenty of real estate ads for beautiful homes graced the corners of almost every page.

All signs pointed to the absolute zenith of our region's prosperity and enlargement, as well as that of the nation; the Vanity was born on the very crest of that wave, with a name that was almost prophetically allegorical. Today it resembles more of a tomb to the vanity of those days of hubris.


Probably my most memorable visit to the Vanity was my first. Even the holiest of holy grails will eventually succumb to the erosion of time, and it was just a matter of waiting for the moment. When the long-awaited "unsealing" of the ballroom had occurred, it set off a weekend feeding-frenzy where every photographer/explorer in the known universe who was "in the know" descended upon it like hyenas upon a sick giraffe within the space of 48 hours, similar to when the David Whitney Building first got cracked. Even though the Vanity was open for business we still handled it with extreme caution, not knowing just how closely it was watched by neighbors, or when somebody would show up to angrily re-secure the building.

I joined up with Detroitblog John that day if I recall correctly, and we made our way inside only to run into another pair of startled colleagues, David Kohrman and his friend, who we soon found out had been in hiding on the roof for at least an hour or two. David said that they were about to leave when they saw some local person sitting on the fire escape right next to the loose board they had come in through, just camping out, apparently waiting to bust them inside. When we entered, David said, they thought we were that guy coming in after them, and later admitted that they were "never so relieved to see a tripod" when we emerged from the tiny entrance in the dark.


Speaking of holy grails, the first impression I had was of the magical sparkling of the ballroom from the sunlight spilling in through the holey roof in the form of "Jesus rays," dramatically illuminating the cobwebs clinging to the railings with silver light that then bounced upwards to reveal the details of this Aztecan temple in a much softer radiance.

The original portrayal of ancient Chichen-Itza even still survived behind the stage, if looking rather faded:


The Vanity set itself apart from the crowd by its exotic Aztec- and Toltec-themed Art Deco styling. There are damned few people who even know what that means or who could tell the difference between Aztec and Toltec styling queues, but anyway this is the description that has been repeated in article after article. The local experts Rebecca Binno Savage and Greg Kowalski, authors of the book Art Deco in Detroit, peg its architectural style as "Mayan/Aztec Revival," however. Anyway...moving on.

There was one wall near the stage that had collapsed already due to water damage, spilling several of the large cartouches onto the floor, some of them fully intact or clustered together (see below). I mused briefly on how this particular slab might look hanging in a museum, perhaps as part of an exhibit memorializing "The Lost Ancient City of Detroit," and realized how similar it was to some inscribed tablets or pieces of ancient Middle-Eastern temples that were currently on display on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, but for the fact that they are not made of plaster. I also mused on whether or not I should rent a forklift to see how it looks on my own wall.


Detroityes forum member Gistok once proffered some very interesting speculations that some of the Fisher Theatre's architectural elements were actually reused in the Vanity Ballroom, since these Mayan cartouche designs found in the Vanity's interior "appear identical to those of the old Fisher." He suspects that because there was such a close working relationship between Charles N. Agree and Graven & Mayger, the architects who designed the Fisher Theater, it's a strong possibility that they shared some plaster molds. Having stared at the cartouche designs on the side of the Fisher Theater's still-existing Wurlitzer organ and thinking the same thing myself during performances at the DTOS, I tend to agree that there is a striking stylistic similarity there that is probably not a coincidence.

There are some great photos of the Fisher Theater's original interior HERE. The other venue in Detroit known for Mayan art (albeit graffiti) was the United Artists Theater, whose painted windows may have also been modeled after the icons found in the Vanity.


I was excited to notice that even the profile of these original benches follows the same motif as the rest of the building's decor:


Savage and Kowalski also note that the Vanity's first floor was comprised of five separate retail storefronts, including a Cunningham's Drug, and of course the ballroom itself was on the second floor. According to the Detroit Historical Society the 5,000-square-foot maple dance floor sat on springs which gave cushion and extra bounce to the dancers who used it. There is a similar such floor in the Masonic Temple.

Like Orchestra Hall, the Vanity had a musical "season," so to speak. That is, they were open from September through June, five nights a week--at least until the 1950s, anyway. I imagine that this was because it got pretty hot in the upstairs ballroom during July and August. Additionally, Detroit dance halls were basically all segregated, and according to the book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60, they could be reserved for black functions only on slow off-nights, such as Mondays.


Like my story about the Grande Ballroom, I have a personal connection to the Vanity as well. My grandparents mostly hung out at the Grande in the '30s and '40s since they were west-siders, but the Vanity was so glamorous that they sometimes splurged and made the trip out here to bask in the elegance of this east-side palace. It was a place to be seen at, and to wear your best clothes to. My grandmother always adds with a slight smirk that there was no alcohol allowed at the Vanity, and no touch-dancing; couples had to settle for the soda fountain at the snack bar, and were required to maintain a certain distance between each other on the dance floor. No funny business, see? I think there might have also been a length requirement for women's dresses.

She also always tells the story of the time they were dancing at the Vanity one night only to have a ring that was dear to her slip off while they were dancing and bounce away on the crowded dance floor. Luckily some honest people saw it happen and helped find it, and she got it back.


During its 30-year heyday the Vanity hosted some of the most legendary acts in the business, such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Red Nichols, Russ Morgan, Art Mooney, Clyde McCoy, and Pee Wee Hunt.

During its 30-year decline, it hosted rock and punk legends including the MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, and other local backup acts such as The Sillies, The Früt, and Hoi Polloi. According to theconcertdatabase.com, the last show was in 1987. I imagine that the presence of the infamous rock dungeons of Harpo's and the Eastown Theater nearby made it tough for the Vanity to compete as a rock venue in the '70s and '80s.


There wasn't much loot to be had in the Vanity but I found an old record in there, which is kind of fitting. Surprisingly it was a recording by Henry Ford's Old Time Dance Orchestra...I didn't know Ford owned his own band (but I guess I should've known). He even sent them to Thomas Edison so that they could be recorded in 1926 (which makes this record three years older than the Vanity itself):


Unfortunately I broke the damned thing when I got it out to take this photo of it, but there is a recording of them on Youtube. Mr. Ford, the notorious old bastard, was known for hating many things, and jazz music was one of them. He was into square dancing and that was about it, so I'm sure he would have sneered at such a den of iniquity as the Vanity, even if it was a dry establishment. That damned lascivious negro jazz, corrupting our youth! The devil's music!

Anyway, according to the Detroit Historical Society the Vanity Ballroom as we knew it closed in 1958 due to decreasing business, although some research in newspaper archives reveals that the old hall was never lonely for long. It seems that every few years some Quixotic savior would come along and announce the "reopening" of the classic Vanity as a venue again, a pattern that kept repeating all the way until the 1990s.


For instance, in 1964 the Vanity again offered old-time musical entertainment for seniors one night a week. An article in the Detroit Free Press from that time asks, "Old Ballroom's Echoes--Will Dancers Remember?" as former owner and manager Edward J. Strata reminisced about the good old days. Strata and Edward J. Davis built the Vanity and operated it for 30 years (they also built the Grande Ballroom, hiring Charles Agree to design both).


Mr. Strata said that 900 couples would show up on Sunday nights in the old days, and 800 on Saturdays, while Wednesdays and Thursdays were the Vanity's "stag nights" where lone guys and gals were encouraged to come mingle with the couples. In the 1940s and '50s the cost of musicians and entertainment was going up and the era of Big Bands began to decline, Strata asserted, but I also imagine that rock & roll, TV, and other things like suburbanization contributed to the demise of the way of life that ballroom dancing was rooted in.


The Detroit Police Vice Squad busted up a scandalous illegal bingo operation here at the ballroom in 1961, which the Free Press covered under the headline "Accuse 10 in Bingo Raid." The games were being held as charity sessions sponsored by Mercy Hall Hospital, but more than 1,000 players were found to be competing for $1,500 in prizes, the article stated. All of them were ejected from the ballroom by police and 19 were arrested. Dramatic stuff.


In 1971-'72 there was a seeming attempt at making the Vanity a rock / jazz concert venue, like an east-side version of the Grande, since a lot of the same acts played in both places. The Velvet Underground was even billed to play the Vanity's stage twice, along with the Guardian Angels and Magic Ring. The Vanity managed to cling to life longer than its sister the Grande, but just barely.


In early 1980 a Free Press article told how local twins Ron and Don Murphy--former Greenfield Village tour guides--met James Demick, to form the "Intrepid Three" with a vision to reopen the Vanity, hoping to appeal to the disco crowd. Even the aging architect Charles Agree helped them out by lending his knowledge of the structure to their quest at its restoration. The roof was leaking a little bit, and the floor was beginning to buckle slightly, but despite that and the fact that the building sat wide open while "winos" slept in the doorway and local hooligans sometimes went up inside to party, it was still in good shape at the time according to the article.


Later that year another article by the same Free Press columnist provided an update on the progress of the Vanity's restoration under its new stewardship. The blighted Graystone Ballroom had just been knocked down on Woodward but the Graystone Jazz Museum was going to live on by moving into one of the Vanity's storefronts. James "Jitterbug" Jenkins, founder of the museum, attempted to raise the money to buy the wrecked old Graystone from its owners--Motown Records--but he failed to come up with the necessary amount so they demolished it. Ron and Don Murphy, who had recently bought the Vanity, offered Jenkins free space for the museum until he could find permanent quarters.


As a side note, the Graystone Jazz Museum eventually moved to a house on Lothrop, then into some space in the abandoned Book Tower, but a friend recently told me that she helped the Detroit Sound Conservancy rescue the Graystone museum's remaining artifacts from there earlier this year (2016) when the Book Tower started undergoing renovation. I can also add that there are a few boxes of salvaged architectural tiles from the Graystone Ballroom itself in storage at Fort Wayne.


The Vanity kept chugging on through the mid-1980s under the Murphy brothers' management, drawing small crowds at best, before closing again and reopening briefly with a Caribbean musical focus. By this time the neighborhood was failing, and it wasn't long before the Vanity would truly be abandoned, despite the fact that it had been given a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.


The Vanity's last show was on December 12, 1987, which billed the Hysteric Narcotics, and The Orange Roughies. I've also heard that it was a party held by former members of MC5.

The old neon blade sign has since been taken off the building, and hopefully it's still in storage somewhere. The Detroit Area Art Deco Society held tours of the Vanity Ballroom as late as 1995, and it appears briefly in the c.2002 movie Eight Mile, during the scene where Eminem's car breaks down in front of it.


If I recall correctly this small window to the right may have been part of the coat check or something like that:


A short trip up to the roof revealed that the Vanity's weather barrier was about as nonexistent as the Grande's. During my most recent visit to the Vanity, in December 2012 (just before the so-called "Mayan Apocalypse," incidentally), I was saddened to see that the increased level of damage to the interior since 2007 had the place looking like a bomb had gone off inside. Those five years of water damage really took a huge toll (not to mention the place had also been bombed with graffiti).


Nonetheless it was just announced in the Free Press a couple days ago (August 2016) that the Vanity may "swing once again" due to a new deal that might lead to redevelopment, but considering that I've seen this same headline echoing across the pages of the Free Press every ten years or so since the 1960s, I'm going believe it, as usual, when I see it. They're estimating that bringing the Vanity back would cost around $8 million.

Photo by a friend.

References:
Buildings of Michigan, by Kathryn Bishop Eckert, p. 112
Art Deco in Detroit, by Rebecca Binno Savage, Greg Kowalski, p. 100-102
The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill, John Gallagher, p. 282
Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60, by Lars Bjorn, Jim Gallert, p. 8
Horn Man: The Polish-American Musician in Twentieth-century Detroit, by Laurie Palazzolo, p. 87
Michigan History Magazine, Vol. 79, (1995) p. 6
"Ball Room is Under Way," Detroit Free Press, June 30, 1929, p. 71
Detroit Free Press, October 27 & 28, 1929 (all)
"The Vanity's Sentimental Journey Looks Up," Detroit Free Press, January 26, 1983, p. 8
"Vanity Ballroom," Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1971, p. 11
"Vanity Ballroom," Detroit Free Press, June 18, 1971, p. 11
"Graystone Lives on at Vanity Ballroom," Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1980, p. 24
"Old Ballroom's Echoes--Will Dancers Remember?" Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1964, p. 3
"Things are Hoppin' at the Old Vanity Again," Detroit Free Press, January 30, 1980, p. 10
"Accuse 10 in Bingo Raid," Detroit Free Press, September 23, 1961, p. 9
http://www.freep.com/story/money/business/columnists/2016/08/23/detroit-jefferson-chalmers-vanity-redevelopment/88944530/
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/vanity-ballroom
http://wdettv.com/video/351/the-vanity-ballroom-detroit-mi
http://theconcertdatabase.com/venues/vanity-ballroom
http://www.motorcitymusicarchives.com/vanityballroom.html
http://www.atdetroit.net/forum/messages/6790/162064.html?1229585155