Hallowed Ground

Fifty years ago this October, The Grande Ballroom became Detroit’s brick-and-mortar embodiment of the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll era

Remarkably, almost unbelievably — since it’s hard to fathom how the sounds booming from its second floor never caused it to implode — the old ballroom is still standing.

At 8952 Grand River Ave., one block south of Joy Road, sits the crumbling structure in which dreams, careers, and Detroit history (and maybe a few children) were made. The Grande Ballroom, the building that epitomizes “Motor City Rock ’n’ Roll,” kicks out the jams for its 50th anniversary Oct. 8 with a daylong series of performances, special features, and memories.

Grande’s golden get-together is at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn. It would be more fitting, of course, to hold the reunion at the Grande, but the old girl hasn’t seen fit to welcome guests in a long time.

“It’s barely standing,” acknowledges Michele Lundgren, who, with her ’60s rock poster artist husband Carl Lundgren, organized the anniversary bash. “We’ve been trying to salvage it, rescue it from the current owners. Builders tell us it will cost $6 million to bring it back. It’s not habitable, not usable, and it’s really unsafe to go in.”

Parents of Detroit teenagers might have thought it was unsafe in its late-’60s heyday, too. The inspiration of Dearborn schoolteacher-turned-rock impresario Russ Gibb (who, at 85 and in failing health, still plans to attend the reunion), the Grande became the stone-and-mortar embodiment of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for a generation. In fact, many locals who couldn’t possibly have been alive to have their senses assaulted by the odor of marijuana and incense while walking upstairs for a show still speak of the Grande in wistful, reverential tones.

It was Detroit’s industrial-strength response to San Francisco’s flower-powered, psychedelic “Summer of Love.” It was Louder Than Love, the title of Tony D’Annunzio’s award-winning 2012 documentary on the Grande. It was where the emerging British Invasion found a heartland home: The Who debuted its historic rock opera, Tommy, there. It was where the “house band,” the noisy, notorious MC5, coined “kick out the jams” as a caustic warning to out-of-town bands (as in, “Kick out the jams or get the **** off the stage”).

It was a musical Shangri-La before the record business became the record industry. Former patrons, now sexagenarians and beyond, still wax nostalgic about seeing the likes of the Amboy Dukes, MC5, The Stooges (with Iggy Pop), Alice Cooper, and the Who on the same bill … for $5.

“In its prime,” MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson eulogizes in Louder Than Love, “it was the best place in the world to play.”

Perhaps it’s not that surprising the Grande still exists, since it has been a survivor throughout its history. It survived the Great Depression: originally built as an adult dance hall (boasting one of the largest hardwood dance floors in America at the time), it was open less than a year before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 altered the definition of disposable income.

It survived the riot. In Detroit’s infamous summer of 1967, as every building around it was consumed by the angry flames of arsonists, the Grande stood unscathed. “Two black youngsters came running by,” Gibb recalled in Louder Than Love. “We said, ‘How come you’re not burning down the Grande?’

“One of them looked up and said, ‘They got music there, man.’ ”

It’s a particularly heady period for Detroit rock nostalgia. The demolition last November of the Eastown Theatre, the Grande’s concert rival, sparked a torrent of concern over Detroit’s great old rock ’n’ roll palaces fading into oblivion. Then in June, Louder Than Love won a Michigan Emmy Award after airing on PBS affiliate WTVS.

Louder was a labor of love for D’Annunzio, who began the project around 2008, even though he has no firsthand recollections of the Grande’s glory days — he was born July 4, 1966, three months before the ballroom opened to rock. However, “if you grow up in Detroit, the Grande or any of that legacy stuff we have for music, sports or anything else is part of our DNA,” he explains.

MC5 performing at the Grande Ballroom. //  Photograph by Leni Sinclair

“I went into it thinking it was going to be a music documentary about the MC5 and Iggy and people like that. But I soon realized this was hallowed ground. It changed lives. So it turned into more of a cultural commentary.”

There have been several Grande reunions in the past. If that fact surprises you, you’ve identified the problem with previous get-togethers.

Lundgren sold 100 VIP tickets in 45 minutes at $100 each to jump-start this version of the reunion. “We’ve got great things lined up. A car show. Added value. I want this to be an event, not just a bunch of people sitting around reminiscing.”

Headlining the all-day musical lineup is legendary ’60s British band, The Yardbirds. Of all the acts from the era, why this one? “They were available,” Lundgren replies, smiling. “There are not that many bands from the ’60s that have stayed together.” Royal Oak native John Idan is now the group’s guitarist and vocalist.

First on stage, fittingly, will be the first band ever to play the Grande: The Wha? “We met Uncle Russ at Northland,” recalls self-taught artist and former Wha? frontman Robert Dempster, who’s getting the band back together for one day.

Named after New York’s Café Wha?, where the band saw Jimi Hendrix live, this incarnation may be more like the Wha’s That?

“I may have to make this ‘über Wha?” Dempster laments. “You only need one original member, right? We were 16, 17 back then. We don’t even know if these guys can still play.”

Don’t be surprised to see John Sinclair or Harvey Ovshinsky, the ’60s radicals Gibb pulled in to legitimize his Grande venture, in the crowd. The work of the late Gary Grimshaw, a world-renowned poster artist who got his start at the Grande, also will be on hand. As will the stories.

Ruth Hoffman, a just-retired University of Illinois dean who’s identified in Louder Than Love as “Grande Groupie,” recalls sitting backstage sharing a bottle of Southern Comfort with another woman, “checking out boys’ butts” until her new friend got up to work.

“It was Janis Joplin,” she gushes.

Hoffman says it was not uncommon for her to wander onstage and take photos during concerts, so guileless were the times. Many of her stills were used in Louder Than Love.

“The Grande was a safe place; that’s important to understand,” she says. “It was safe for young people to come and be themselves, try things out. I was opened up to a different world.”

Grande Old Party

The 50th anniversary of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, “The Last Jam,” will be celebrated from 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Oct. 8, at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Ave., Dearborn. Highlights will include performances by special guests The Yardbirds, as well as Stoney and the Jagged Edge, Frijid Pink, The Gang, Thomas Blood, The Wha?, and Ray Goodman leading the Grande All-Star Band (Drew Abbott, Al Jacquez, Gary Rasmussen, Johnny “Bee,” and Jim Alfredson) with guest appearances by Grande veterans Jem Targal, Steve Farmer, Lamont Zodiac, and others. The event will feature a rock ’n’ roll art exhibit, classic car show, ’60s fashion show, and over 50 memorabilia vendors. Tickets are $50, and can be purchased at the Ford box office by calling 313-943-2354. For more information, email grande50th@gmail.com or visit thegrandeballroom.com.