Players Detroit boasts century-long amateur theater run

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The audience sits at small tables in the theater, which seats 150. Long vertical paintings by artist Paul Honore hang on the walls of the auditorium.

 

The two-story English Renaissance building at 3321 E. Jefferson in Detroit looks elegant inside and out. Dating to 1926, it’s a testament to the great architects and artisans of that decade, several of whom had a hand in its creation.

Above the entryway, a name is chiseled — THE PLAYERS — near a Michigan historic site plaque.

It’s the clubhouse of the Players Detroit, a men’s amateur theater group that’s now in its 106th year. The Players clubhouse is still used and enjoyed in the same way it has been for 91 years, a tradition that predates the building: The Players put on one-act plays they call “frolics” and, as they have always done, don tuxedos on performance nights.

Players Detroit was incorporated in 1911, at a time when two cultural trends were popular across the country: Men’s fraternal clubs were everywhere, and amateur theater groups were found in many large American cities. The most famous theater clubs were the Players in New York City, founded by legendary actor Edwin Booth in 1888, and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, founded in 1872.

Many of these groups focused on light-hearted, short works. The Players members still write many of the plays, design and build the sets, create the costumes, and act in all roles, including the female roles.

David Clark, current president of Players Detroit, acknowledges that an all-male theater club is a rarity in today’s world. “It’s a long tradition that dates back to our founding and we uphold it,” he said. “More directly, members find socializing only with men puts them at ease and makes the club a relaxed and comfortable place to be.”

Their season runs from October to May, in which three one-act plays are presented before members on one night each month, with the best selected to be performed later for the general public in what are called “invitationals.” November’s invitational is already sold out. The reputation of the quality of the productions makes getting a ticket for the invitationals, even for members of the club, sometimes difficult. Due to the tables and chairs in the auditorium, the seating is limited to 175 people.

Comedic beginnings

The Players began when vaudeville and theater were the primary entertainment venues in Detroit. According to Ed Priebe, spokesman and historian for the group, theaters were everywhere because Detroit was a city where professional productions were staged and tested before heading to Broadway.

“A group in Detroit called the Comedy Club was formed in 1880, and was very popular,” he said, “performing for 30 years before breaking up in 1910.” Six members of the Comedy Club used the money remaining in their treasury to form the Players Detroit. “Most of that money was used to rent facilities to put on productions,” Priebe said.

Fifteen years later, one of the charter members, Maxwell Grylls, of the prominent architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, agreed to have his firm design and build a home for the Players. He selected a young, energetic architect who recently joined his firm to take on the Players’ clubhouse. His name was William E. Kapp, who later in his career would design the Detroit Historical Museum, the Rackham Building on University of Michigan campus, Music Hall and Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester.

Kapp was remembered by members as thin, tall, very friendly and enthusiastic about the design and construction of the building. He would stand on the property, his arms loaded with drawings and blueprints, to show members and others what they would soon see rising up on Jefferson Avenue. One of those charcoal drawings hangs proudly above the fireplace of the main members’ meeting hall. Kapp would later join the Players, and for 10 years produced nearly 200 set designs for plays.

In addition to architect Kapp, well-known artists such as Italian-American sculptor Corrado Parducci and French trained Detroit artist Paul Honoré contributed to the red-brick building, which was completed in 1926 at the cost of $75,000.

Impressive interior

The exterior design includes a red tiled roof and three round arched windows framed with a wrought-iron balcony. Near the roofline are 10 sculpted faces created by Parducci. Over the entrance on the front facade, Parducci also created the limestone arch and the dramatic mask that is the club’s symbol.

But it is inside where this clubhouse most impresses. The theater interior is two stories high, but like a nightclub it is filled with small round cocktail tables and chairs. Along the walls are six large, brilliantly colored Art Deco murals by Honoré that depict a traveling troupe of troubadours. From the ceiling hang European-style banners that symbolically depict the different groups that go into producing live theater.

The wrought-iron railings and light fixtures were either hand made in Detroit or purchased by members in Europe. One of the members in the early 1920s went on a Grand Tour across Europe and brought back most of the iron hardware for the doors, the lights in the Grand Hall, the scones in the foyer, and the chandeliers in the Founder’s Room.

Ceiling beams are natural wood and hand decorated in the Arts and Crafts style. On either side of the large stage are two enormous urns produced by Parducci. The urns hold sand but also the ashes of the mortgage of the paid-off building, and even the ashes of some very devoted albeit deceased club members.

The stage is large with natural maple flooring and trapdoors used in some productions. The Players once had a full orchestra and produced musicals. In the 1960s Mel Brooks gave the Players permission to stage his musical farce “The Producers” before it opened on Broadway. A song from one Players’ musical — “When Day Is Done” — became the club’s theme song and is sung by all at the close of a show.

The building was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1985, and in 1987 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

No talent required

On this night a few members are in the club to rehearse for a show. Allan Dick, a club member for 42 years, is in one of the frolics and will play guitar in the other two that night.

“It’s a cross between a college fraternity and amateur theater group,” says Dick, an insurance underwriter by trade. “I had no acting experience at all. My closest friend’s father was a member of Players so my friend would come down to the club and bring his friends, including myself. I really liked it so I stayed. Some members are quality actors, others are decent, but most are like me, with no talent. But they throw you in there and I got more comfortable on stage and gained confidence.”

Dick says that club membership is comprised of men from all over southeast Michigan. He adds, “Mostly middle class, middle aged white men, but we’re working on that.”

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A quote by William Shakespeare -- "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" -- is written above the entrance to the spiral staircase. (Photo: Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Standing nearby is another member who travels to Detroit from Chelsea, John L. Daly. Daly has been a member for 39 years and co-authored the three frolics they are rehearsing this night, each 20-25 minutes long.

These particular plays are linked in subject and titled “Thunderbird,” “Frontier Accountant,” and “Wasting Away.” Daly explains, “The frolics are about three U of M business school grads (two men and one woman, played by a man) who are graduating and entering the real world.”

Daly owns a company called Executive Education, which provides executive development seminars in the U.S. and overseas.

“I got into the Players back in 1978,” he says. “I was working late one night with a colleague and I asked him if he was going home and he said no, he was going to his club for a drink first. He invited me to come with him and I fell in love with this place,” Daly said.

“As the club tradition dictates, I had to perform one month after I joined and the script was so terrible I thought it was a set-up, some kind of initiation punishment. I was on stage with six others and after all these years four are still members, one died and another had to move for his job. That says a lot.”

Daly adds, “This is strictly amateur. Out of 185 members only six are professionals who do supper theater and such.”

Sean Fisher, an electrical contractor, was hired in 2011 to rewire some of the building. He was intrigued by the club. “All the beautiful artwork and the guys were great here, so I decided to join,” he says.

A bit younger than the others, Fisher thought “I could help build sets for the plays. I also do construction.

“But when you join you get your ‘rookie play.’ When you get cast you don’t know what you’ll be. I was in ‘Serial Killer Barbie.’ I was a blond Barbie. The brunette Barbie, jealous of the blonds, was the killer. It was fun but I got a lot of whistles when I stepped on stage, which threw me off,” he laughs.

“I love it. I bring friends in to get them to join. Every year I play Schroeder in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” a play the club puts on for members’ children and grandchildren.

“At the end of the year we have the Willie Awards, which is actually a roast of everybody for their mistakes, like dropped lines, tripping on stage and such. I got one. When I was supposed to toss a ball to another character in our play I threw it too high and hard and it hit a light and stopped the play for a moment.”

Repairs always needed

For all the fun the members have, the building is always in need of repairs. Above the stage the ceiling soars to four stories to handle the rise of curtains and scene sets. But the stage rigging is old and hemp ropes and pulleys are in regular need of replacement. The building needs a new roof, and a rusted-out water tank and system was recently replaced at $250,000. Expenses to maintain the building are high, so the Players rent out the space to other theater groups, such as the Fine Arts Society of Detroit and the Theater Arts Society of Detroit. They also rent the club to business groups holding meetings, and for weddings on the weekends.

That still does not cover all expenses, so the Players are seeking a grant to help, and have several generous donors. They anticipate reaching their $1 million goal in a year or more.

Along with the auditorium, the building holds a commercial kitchen (no longer used), a balcony with a computer-based stage lighting panel, dressing rooms, prop rooms and a formal meeting room on the second floor where every member receives his own personalized ceramic beer stein. Mugs of deceased members are displayed on a high shelf in remembrance.

While membership will likely never reach the high of 400 members in the 1920s, they have seen an uptick and are now at 185. Using Facebook and other social media is attracting younger members.

Jim Turnbull, a Players member for 38 years, leads tours of the building. To schedule a tour, make sure you are not calling the Players Lounge on Eight Mile, which is a strip club.

“That happens,” laughs club historian Priebe.

Public performances

November’s Invitational for the public on Nov. 3-4 and 10-11 are sold out. Other Invitationals will be scheduled in May 2018. Ticket prices are $35. The dress code for the audience is black tie or dark business suits for men and cocktail attire for women.

For information, call (313) 259-3385. http://www.playersdetroit.org/

Shot fired: Detroit police searching for armed suspect in southwest

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Ronito Gomez, 27, escaped in a black Altima and is expected to be armed and in southwest.(Photo: Detroit Police Department)

 

Detroit police are searching for a suspect who began backing up a car toward officers and pointed a gun at them  Wednesday in southwest Detroit. 

Homicide investigators were in southwest Detroit at 3:40 p.m. when they saw four males arguing on the 1600 block of South Liddesdale. One suspect exited his vehicle armed with a gun and targeted the others, police said.

The detectives identified themselves and intervened. The suspect returned to his vehicle, a black Altima, and began backing the vehicle toward officers, pointing a weapon at them, police said. 

Officers fired a single shot, which they believe hit the suspect's vehicle, said Detroit police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Moreno.

"No officers or the suspect were injured," said Moreno. 

Police say they are searching for Ronito Gomez, 27, who escaped in the Altima. He was believed  to be in southwest Detroit and armed, police said. 

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

Teen shot in foot in downtown Detroit

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Police said a fight broke out at Washington and Grand River on Tuesday night and a teen was shot in the foot.

 

A 14-year-old was shot in downtown Detroit on Tuesday night, police said.

The victim, a male, was with others youths when he was shot about 10:15 p.m. in the ankle at Grand River and Washington by someone in the group, police said.

The shooter remained on the loose after fleeing the scene at Grand River and Washington, police said.

A building was taped off a section of the 1200 block of Washington as police conducted their investigation. A fire truck along with four patrol cars also were at the scene. The sidewalk where the shooting took place was closed off to pedestrians.

The victim was transported by the Fire Department to the hospital. His condition was unknown.

A group of males were gathered at the site when a fight broke out, a Detroit police spokeswoman said. “One opened fire and the 14 year old was struck,” said Officer Jennifer Moreno.

At-large Detroit council incumbents face challengers

A former state representative and a county legislative assistant are challenging at-large City Council members Brenda Jones and Janee Ayers in the Nov. 7 election, arguing voters want a change.

The incumbents said they have worked hard for residents and deserve to win the two seats representing the entire city.

Council President Jones and Ayers held the top positions among five contenders in the August primary, pulling in 45 percent of the vote and 25.2 percent respectively, followed by former state lawmaker Mary Waters at 16.8 percent and Beverly Kindle-Walker at 6.4 percent.

As Detroit’s longest-serving council member, Jones said she remains focused on putting Detroit residents and city-based businesses to work, getting quality public education and meeting the needs of neighborhoods.

“The things that were important to me 13 years ago are still just as important to me today,” said Jones, who is working on legislation that would ensure businesses based here get their “fair share” when it comes to funding allocated for larger projects.

Jones, 57, was first elected to the council in 2005. The east side resident initiated Detroit’s Skilled Trades Task Force and chairs the council’s Military Veterans Task Force.

Jones is also working on a commission to address human trafficking and hosting seminars to provide advice to ex-convicts seeking jobs or record expungement.

As council president, Jones has forged a partnership with Mayor Mike Duggan but has opposed him on some high-profile issues including community benefits agreements. She also has called for transparency in the demolition and city consultant contracts.

Jones this summer opposed a series of key agreements tied to the Detroit Pistons’ move from Auburn Hills to downtown, saying she wanted more job guarantees in writing.

“I continue to remain focused on moving the city forward,” she said. “I represent the people that live here, that work here, that play here.”

Ayers, 36, is vying for her first full term on council after being appointed to the post in 2015 to replace former member Saunteel Jenkins, who left for a nonprofit job. Last November, Ayers defeated a prominent pastor in a special race to finish the final year of Jenkins’ unexpired term.

Ayers said she’s into “no-nonsense governing” and believes residents see her “hard work and integrity.” Her team, she said, strives to be in the community and responsive.

In two years on council, Ayers also has created the Returning Citizens Task Force to help inmates who get out of prison and is working on an ordinance proposal to address housing and employment for jail and prison convicts returning to society.

In the wake of the Oct. 1 massacre in Las Vegas, Ayers called for the city’s Law Department and council staff to evaluate whether Detroit could enact an ordinance restricting rifles and semiautomatic weapons in hotel rooms that face public spaces.

The former MGM Grand Detroit Casino employee says the gun-related initiative is “not an election piece. It’s a people piece.”

“I’m not a lifetime politician,” said Ayers, who lives in northwest Detroit. “I’m not far removed from working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I know what our citizens are going through and what they continue to go through on a day-to-day basis.”

Former State Rep. Mary Waters, 62, is a resident of the city’s Lafayette Park neighborhood and said she is running to “put the people first.”

“It’s very critical that those of us elected as council members do our due diligence and don’ just rubber stamp everything that comes across the table,” she said. “People are looking for someone who is strong and wants to take the lead on issues that are important to them. They know that about me.”

Waters served six years in the state Legislature, was behind a state law addressing copper theft and fought to save city businesses.

She was also vice chair of Detroit’s charter revision committee in the 1990s and made past unsuccessful bids for Congress and Detroit council.

She touts a platform focused on environmental issues, improving the city’s community benefits and blight rules, as well as services for low-income mothers and children.

“My record in itself says I’ve always been a fighter on behalf of the people,” she said. “We don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

Kindle-Walker, a West Village resident, says she’s running to restore trust in city government.

“Definitely trying to restore the spirit of Detroit is No. 1,” said Kindle-Walker, 63. “We need somebody whose single focus is on city business to be at that table to leverage the business of City Council.”

A legislative assistant to Democratic Wayne County Commissioner Tim Kileen, Kindle-Walker ran unsuccessfully for council in 2005 and 2009 as well as for Wayne County treasurer.

Kindle-Walker said she’ll fight to have an early payment discount reinstated for city parking tickets and leverage Detroit’s City Airport for commercial aviation.

“I offer common sense and institutional knowledge because of my experiences,” said Kindle-Walker, adding she’s not concerned that the incumbents came finished on top in the primary.

“I’m not worried about that. If it’s meant for me, it will happen,” she said.

Detroit chamber gets $450K to boost grad rate

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The Kresge Foundation announced a $450,000 grant Monday to the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation for a campaign to increase the number of Metro Detroit residents with college degrees.

 

The Kresge Foundation announced a $450,000 grant Monday to the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation for a campaign to increase the number of Metro Detroit residents with college degrees.

According to Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, 73 percent of southeast Michigan high school graduates enroll in college within 12 months but only 35 percent earn a degree or credential within six years.

“The Kresge Foundation’s grant allows the Chamber to both develop and implement a strategic blueprint to bolster postsecondary attainment throughout the region,” Sandy Baruah, chamber president and CEO, said in a statement.

The chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees program, started in 2015, aims to increase college attendance and graduation.

“This grant is a recognition of how terribly important it is to have in place ways to ensure that students are successful once they enter college,” Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, said in an interview.

“So often we assume the challenge is getting kids into college, and that is a big jump, and it’s absolutely important. But equally important is making sure they succeed once they are there,” he said. “So this grant is going to help us understand all of the different ways in which students’ success can be pursued in the Detroit region ... to make sure (students) graduate prepared for work and prepared for life.”

Over the next three years, the chamber and the Detroit Drives Degrees Leadership Council will set regional improvement goals and track progress toward meeting them.

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