Monday, November 16, 2020

The Grande Ballroom--Detroit's Hard Rock Mecca

Mural painted on plywood used to board up the Grande Ballroom.

Detroit empresario Harry Weitzman was the financier and original owner of the Grande Ballroom located on the corner of Grand River Blvd and Joy Rd in the predominately Jewish Petosky-Otsego neighborhood on Detroit's Westside. Construction began in May 1928 on the multiuse, two-story building with basement space which opened that October. The architectual style was Art Deco with Spanish Colonial Revival elements. The building was not equipped with air conditioning, so the ballroom was surrounded on three sides by twenty-two Moorish arched windows for cross-ventilation during the hot summer months.

Retail shops occupied the first floor, the mezzenine, and the basement. The ballroom dance floor filled most of the second floor--one of the largest in the Midwest with a capacity for 1,837 dancers. The hardwood floor featured a "sprung" design built over subflooring and a lattice work of cork strips to allow the floor to cushion the dancers' steps, and whether by design or happy coincidence, the ballroom had fabulous acoustics.

The Grande Ballroom became a favorite playground for the surrounding Jewish neighborhood. One can imagine Purple Gang members dressed in fancy clothes, strolling into the dance hall checking out the local talent. From the 1930s until the end of World War II, the Grande featured jazz and big band music. After the war, the music business changed as prewar entertainment habits changed.

The jukebox and a burgeoning record industry turned many dancers into listeners. Youth in the1950s began hosting basement and garage record parties to the detriment of ballroom culture. Commercial radio and television did not help either.

The rise of teen dance television programs like Dick Clark's American Bandstand and Swinging Time with Robin Seymour helped record companies shift America's musical tastes from big bands and orchestras to smaller rock & roll bands and rhythm & blues groups that could lip synch their music and reach a huge, teenage audience. All the city's ballrooms fell on hard times. The Grande's dance floor was turned into a roller skating rink for a time and then a storage facility for mattresses.

In 1966, WKNR deejay "Uncle" Russ Gibb cut a rent-to-buy deal with current owners, the Kleinmann family, for $700 a month. Gibb turned the boarded-up eyesore into a hard rock venue modeled after Bill Graham's San Francisco Fillmore Theater. The surrounding neighborhood and the outside of the Grande had seen better days and was in decline.

Gibb asked other Detroit deejays to partner with him, but they said, "It will never work; that's a Black neighborhood." He reached out to John Sinclair, a key figure in the collaborative Detroit Artists' Workshop, which morphed into Trans-Love Energies Unlimited. Together, they made the Grande Ballroom a success. Where else could young people in Detroit go to see two local bands and two headliner groups for five dollars?

Russ Gibb wanted the Grande to be a place where bands were free to write and perform their own material and forge their own identities. He was not interested in cover bands or bar bands. To help create a psychedelic atmosphere, one of the largest strobe lights ever constructed was installed.

A large screen behind the bandstand displayed light shows created with vegetable oil, food coloring, and a piece of Saran Wrap manipulated in a clear glass bowl or plate projected onto the screen with a transparency projector. This low tech light show combined with the strobe light was unlike anything Detroit kids had ever experienced before. Pretty soon, the weekly gatherings of the tribe began to resemble the characters on the pages of Rob Crumb's Zap Comix.

First Grande Ballroom handbill by Gary Grimshaw in October 1966.

If Crumb was the artist in residence for the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren were the artists in residence for the The Grande Ballroom. Their original graphic art became famous and was featured in the Grande's weekly handbills which were produced in large numbers and widely distributed. Today, original Grande poster and handbill art attracts collectors, especially if it's signed by the artists or featured band members.

An example of Carl Lundgren's work.

Arguably, the Grande Ballroom is the birthplace of punk and hard rock music. They started with Detroit's local power bands like SRC, Frost, Iggy and the Stooges, The Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger and the Last Herd, and the Grande's house band The MC5. Then the San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company started making Detroit appearances on their concert tours.

When emerging British rock groups heard about the Grande's rabid rock & roll scene, they made Detroit part of their tours--groups and performers like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Procol Harem, and Cream. To get a sense of how intense performances could be, listen to MC5s "Kick Out the Jams" album which was recorded live at the Grande.

The Grande also hosted Black jazz and blues performers helping to expand their audiences. This drew in racially mixed crowds and endeared the Grande to the local community--performers like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, John Coltrane, Howling Wolf, Taj Mahal, and Sun Ra were booked, as well as rock & roll legends Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Jimi Hendrix

Russ Gibb closed the Grande on New Year's Eve 1972 after six years of operation. The counter-culture and the record business had changed. Corporate suits realized they could make megabucks promoting these groups through much larger venues like auditoriums, university fieldhouses, and stadiums. One by one, the groups signed binding record contracts changing the performers and their performances, making the Grande's grassroots venue a victim of its own success.

Gibb returned to teaching and landed a job at Dearborn High School where he worked until retirement promoting media education. As the decades passed, the weather and vandals turned the dance hall into a ruin. Some efforts are being made to restore the roof of the building to make it weather tight.


Suffice it to say, the Grande's history takes more than a blog post to recount. There is an interesting book available on Amazon, named aptly enough The Grande Ballroom: Detroit's Rock 'N' Palace, by Leo Early.

An Emmy-winning documentary Louder Than Love--The Grande Ballroom was released in 2012. It tells the rock palace's story as told by many of the people who made musical history there. The 52 minute documentary is linked below.

Louder Than Love

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Alex Karras--Basketball Bully?

Anybody know what this publicity shot was for? I recognize Alex Karras and Merle Olsen. Who are the other guys? I think the guy with his legs crossed might be Jack Nicklaus.

Over the spring of 1963, Detroit Lion Alex Karras was waiting to hear his fate over NFL gambling allegations. He continued to go about his life as normally as possible. In the off-season, the Lions' public relations department organized a series of exhibition basketball games in the greater Detroit area to raise money for worthy causes with the side benefit of selling Lions' season tickets. The games were meant to be fun, with the Lions players pulling gags, breaking the rules, and ignoring the volunteer referees much like the Harlem Globetrotters but without the talent or precision timing.

On March 24, 1963, The Detroit Free Press reported that during a Lions exhibition game in Bronson, Michigan on March 19th Alex Karras hit community player Darian Wiler with a "deliberate backhand blow to the neck that left him flat on the floor for five minutes." After Karras was pulled from the game and sent to the showers, the rest of the Lions stuck to playing the basketball game without any further antics.

Another roughing incident occurred several days later in Belleville, Michigan which broke up the game before the clock ran out. The Lions' opponents were an alumni team of former Belleview High School basketball athletes who wanted to prove they still had what it takes before the hometown crowd who was rooting them on.

Former local basketball star, twenty-year-old Gerald Linderman told the Free Press that Alex Karras roughed him up on the court and slugged him when he attempted to shake hands with him in the locker room. Karras denied the incident, "I didn't get hit and I didn't hit anybody. I can't understand what all the trouble is about. There was no real trouble."

Detroit Lions Logo 1961-1969

Spectators reported that they hoped to see a fun Lions' celebrity fundraiser for Little League baseball, but Karras was playing roughhouse basketball more like a football game or a professional wrestling match.

"Before me," Linderman said, "(Karras) hit one guy with a forehead and he elbowed another in the mouth; then, he got all over me just before the game was ended. The game took a turn for the worse when our team's biggest player, Fritz Steger (6' 3"/220#), was sent to the showers after he bumped Lion Wayne Walker, and Walker hit him with a basketball squarely in the face from only five feet away.

"Karras came up to me and said, 'You gave me an elbow for the last time. I'm gonna give you one in the mouth'. We swung at each other a couple of times as I tried to back away to protect myself. He tackled me giving me a cut over my right eye. The (organizers) called off the game."

One of the referees Richard Duffield, a teacher at Livonia High School, was an eyewitness. "Linderman had his hand out and said he was sorry thinking Karras would shake it, then he pinned Linderman against the wall. (Karras) backed off, changed his mind, and hit him hard in the jaw. Thirty minutes later, Karras apologized saying he was already in enough trouble.

A couple days after the unflattering Free Press article ran, the Detroit Lions' public relations office had club trainer Millard Kelly and a couple of players including Karras make a press statement about their promotional basketball program and the incident.

Kelly told the local Detroit media, "You get some (players) who want to make it a friendly exhibition game and some who are gung-ho about winning. The gung-ho ones are kids out of high school a few years that are rusty but ready to show the hometown crowd they can still play basketball and aren't going to be pushed around by any pro football bullies."

Detroit Lion end Gail Gogdill said of the Belleville scuffle, "We want to put on a good show, but there are always some of the hometown team who want to beat the big, bad Lions. They think they can pop a few elbows. Wayne (Walker) and Alex (Karras) were elbowed all the time. We pulled our stunts like flying wedges, fake field goals, holding each other on our shoulders to make a shot. We signed autographs at halftime and everybody had a good time."

Karras' final words on the subject were "You know how guys are sometimes? He (Linderman) banged me in the throat twice with his elbows, and I told him 'Kid, that's enough. Cut it out now', so he bangs me again. So, I'm the bully?"

Karras in locker room interview.

The fracas undoubtedly reached the desk of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, as did the news of the professional wrestling match Karras was scheduled to have with mauler Dick the Bruiser at Detroit's Olympia Stadium on April 29, 1963. Karras was left to twist in the wind until April 17th when Commissioner Rozelle called and informed him he was suspended for the 1963 NFL season after admitting gambling on NFL games.

On April 21st, Karras was contacted by The Detroit Free Press for comment. The Lion's beleaguered, defensive lineman said he felt the suspension was unfair but there was nothing he could do about it. To play down his simmering resentment, he added, "I even got a call from Belleview. They said they were forming a Dick the Bruiser fan club. They're coming down to see me take a beating."

The Bellevue boosters were not disappointed.

Killer Karras vs. Dick the Bruiser