Never heard of the Eastown? Neither had I, but then I don’t know nearly enough about Detroit where in 1931 the Eastown, one of four elaborate motor city movie palaces, opened with Sporting Blood, starring Clark Gable. Fifteen cents a head in the afternoon, a quarter weeknights, thirty-five cents Saturday and Sunday evening, and kids always a dime. The Easton had a nice three-and-a-half decade run, but then, like most of its sister palaces, fell on hard times in the mid-sixties. White flight to the ‘burbs, TV, multiplexes, you couldn’t fill a palace anymore for a single showing. Then a couple of neighborhood guys pulled off at the Eastown what we hoped for at the St. George, reopening on May 29, 1969, as a rock n’ roll palace. The Who, the Kinks, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, the Faces, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Captain Beefheart, Steppenwolf, King Crimson, James Gang, Rush, J. Geils Band and Joe Walsh all played there. Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes recorded “Survival of the Fittest” in that hall, and Joe Cocker began his “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour there.
A great success story, right? Names as big as that we only dreamed of bringing to our stage at the St. George. By 1976, while we were struggling to keep our similarly sized palace open for movies, hoping to attract rock acts from Manhattan, the Eastown was in a world of trouble. Audience members had quickly gone from popcorn to tabs of acid, with over twelve drug rings operating out of the audience during concerts. Acid, heroin, ‘ludes, coke and of course grass — you name it, and a lot of them were bogus, in some cases substances that only appeared to be what they actually were, and could kill. On one occasion, two deaths had been associated with attendance there. People reported stepping over the bodies of OD’d patrons, and the place operated without permits from the city.
In 1976, under new management and newly renamed (the Showcase Theatre), the Easton reopened to what would hopefully become a new era, with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Tom Waits, Pat Metheny and James Brown. But it was rough going, with local drug lords and street gangs nipping at the edges of everything. Chris Jaszczak, one of the three twenty-something high school buddies running the place at the time, recalls, “When we went out to change the marquee, we’d have to send two people out there or else they’d steal the letters and try to sell them back to us…. We’d do a show and patrons would come out and all their tires would be gone.”
After this crew pulled out, the Detroit Center for the Performing Arts took roughly a decade to slowly fail: there was never was enough money for the arts in Detroit, and the Eastown, with its upstairs ballroom and adjacent apartments, was just too big, too complex to survive. There were performances here and there after that. A church occupied it for a time, renting the adjacent apartments to various church members.
The end came post-millennium, after abandonment. There had been an earlier apartment fire, and a subsequent one reduced much of the theater to rubble. It’s physically painful to read this story in detail, the fire, concomitant demolition notices, scrapping, stripping the place of its copper piping, cutting the steel that held up the dome, then the demo crew.
In August, 1997, speaking to The Detroit Free Press, Alice Cooper credited the Eastown with having “the best audience in the world... Any other city, people went home from work to put on their Levis and black leather jackets for a concert. In Detroit they came from work like that. The Eastown — those were pure rock ’n’ roll times.”
In L.A. or New York or San Francisco, this theater might still be standing, but in Detroit, a distinctly blue-collar setting, made more desperate by the collapse of local industry, it’s amazing the palace lasted until November 20, 2015.
For me, all roads lead back to the St. George Theatre where I got a sense of just how rare and sacred these cavernous old halls can be. We went into the St. George hoping to create a great rock palace —just like the Fillmores — or the Eastown? Drugs, gangs, chaos: beware of what you wish for.
Wednesday, November 24, 1976
starring Marty Feldman
In Concert Saturday Night, 11 PM
Buzzy Linhart and band
On-Screen at Midnight
The Groove Tube
All Seats, All Times
$1.50, children 90 cents