Detroit used to be one of America’s biggest music cities. And one of its most iconic music venues, called the Grande Ballroom, hosted many of the most well-known acts ever to visit the Motor City. Beginning as a tame hardwood-floored dance hall in the 1920's, in the 1960’s, the Grande Ballroom became a hotbed of psychadelic and countercultural activity, hosting both national and international acts. Now, the Grande Ballroom has fallen the way of many of Detroit’s massive and ornate buildings—it lies dormant with a For-Sale sign on its front. Like a lot of Detroit, its future, if it has one, remains uncertain.
The Grande Ballroom was designed in 1928 as a multi-purpose building. The lower levels were used for retail shops while the upper level functioned as a dance hall. In the 1940’s and ‘50’s, the Ballroom hosted big bands and was home to a dance hall revival. The room’s hardwood floors were famous throughout the Midwest.
In 1966, Russ Gibb, a Dearborn high school teacher and radio DJ, purchased the Grande Ballroom. He was inspired by San Francisco’s Fillmore Theater, which he had recently visited. He wanted the Grande Ballroom to be a place where teens could hang out, but also a place to listen to psychadelic music.
To open the venue, Gibb called on one of Detroit’s most well-known countercultural figures, John Sinclair. Sinclair was a poet and a prominent leader of the White Panther party, which supported socialism and the Black Panther Party's anti-racist agenda. In 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison after giving marijuana to an undercover police officer.
Sinclair and Gibb worked to bring in bands from Detroit and San Francisco, moving on to national and international acts as the venue’s popularity grew. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and The Who graced the Ballroom’s stage. Aside from psychadelic rock, the Ballroom also hosted jazz legends John Coltrane and Sun Ra. In-house local bands like MC5, The Thyme and The Stooges played weekly shows.
Many of the local bands were part of the artist community housed in a Detroit neighborhood dubbed Plum Street. In the 1960’s, the neighborhood was Detroit’s center of anti-war sentiment, drug use, hippie culture, and art making. Later in the decade, the neighborhood acquired 43 artist-owned shops including art galleries and craft stores. John Sinclair had a media company there called Translove Energies and Detroit's underground alternative weekly The Fifth Estate was based in the neighborhood.
Gibb closed the Grande in 1972, when it became less popular. Since then, it has remained dormant and has fallen into disrepair. The paint peels from the walls, the plaster falls from the ceiling, the stage’s curtains hangs in tatters. You’d never believe that it ever housed anything important.
It’s hard to remember that Detroit was such an important city in the 1960's. Like other American cities, it had underground culture, political activism, hippies. Now, it seems like all you ever hear about Detroit is about how it is in ruins. We need memories of the Grande Ballroom and other places to remember that Detroit used to be, and still can be, more than streets full of abandoned buildings.