The Fisher Theatre was a grand Moving Picture Palace with a great unique Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ, one of the largest ever built. It closed December 31, 1960. The building was about to be remodeled for another purpose, so the organ was to be sold and removed. The Fisher brothers, anxious to preserve the pipe organ as it was in its theater days and to keep it in the Detroit area,
sold it to George Orbits, a local organ buff.
Orbits original intent was to install the organ in his new home. Until his home was built, Orbits and a few theater organ buffs created The Detroit Theater Organ Club in 1961, and leased the old Iris Theater on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit where the organ was installed. Many great concerts were performed there by the top performing artists of the country.
The Club’s popularity grew and the Iris Theater was soon outgrown, causing Orbits and the DTOC to search for a permanent home for the Club and the organ. The derelict Senate Theater was found after a city wide search. Club members spent several thousand man hours over two years restoring the building while the organ was being installed in four new chambers built on the old stage and in the two original organ chambers on either side of the stage.
In 1989 the DTOC became The Detroit Theater Organ Society, an all volunteer non-profit organization. The DTOS and the preceding DTOC have been in existence for 51 years, far longer than the founding members had ever anticipated.
The organ was purchased by the organization and this mighty Wurlitzer has now been playing longer in the Senate Theater than in its original home in the Fisher Theater. This remarkable organ has been featured in monthly concerts at the Senate with internationally known artists since 1964. The Society continues its purpose of preservation, maintenance and playing of theater organs in a proper setting.
The Fisher Theater
In the fall of 1928, the magnificent 28-story Fisher Building was completed in the New Center area of Detroit. The building was designed by Albert Kahn and built by the seven Fisher brothers (of automotive fame) across West Grand Boulevard from the General Motors building. The complex was originally designed to have two 28-story towers flanking a central tower of 60 stories. Because of the Great Depression that started in 1929, the complex was never completed as envisioned. Only one tower was completed for offices.
The main building contained many excellent retail shops and one of the finest motion picture palaces in the country, the Fisher Theater. The theater was designed by architects Graven & Mayger. Opening night audiences were overwhelmed by the Mayan architecture, live birds in the lounges, and fish swimming in tanks in the lobby. The 3500 seat theater featured an atmospheric ceiling, elaborate stage presentations, a symphony orchestra and a one-of-a-kind Wurlitzer theater pipe organ to accompany the silent movies of the day, and play audiences in and out of the theater.
In 1961, the theater was remodeled into a legitimate playhouse.
The Senate Theater
The Senate Theater, designed by architect Christian Brandt, opened October 7, 1926 on Michigan Avenue just west of Livernois Street in Detroit. It had about 1200 seats and a full working stage. The Martin Brothers washing machine factory was torn down to make way for the new theater.
Mainly a movie theater, it also presented some young comedians and entertainers on their way to later stardom, including performances by Amos Jacobs, later known as Danny Thomas. The theater once had a small Robert Morton theater organ often played by Thelma Boomhower.
The theater closed in 1955 after a short period of showing some horror and x-rated films. The building was used for church services for a short time, then abandoned. The empty building soon became a derelict with its seats gone, glass and mirrors broken, a flooded basement and a large part of the roof blown off.
That is how members found it in 1962. Following 2 years of restoration, installation of some 880 seats and the great Wurlitzer organ, it became an anchor site for the neighborhood and a Michigan Avenue landmark. Members take great pride in their Club home, and in preserving a bit of history.
The dedicatory concert on April 11, 1964 featured the celebrated New York organist, Ashley Miller, at the console. In 2013 there will have been more than 650 concerts performed.
The Fisher Years
The Fisher Family Success Arriving in Detroit from Norwalk, Ohio, the two eldest Fisher brothers invested $50,000 and formed the Fisher Body Company in 1908. Through innovations like interchangeable parts and all-weather body designs the company was successful. By the time the family sold the business to General Motors for $208 million in 1919 and 1926, they had over 40 plants employing 100,000 workers and used more wood, carpet, tacks and thread than any other manufacturer in the world. The sale was a profitable one, and the Fisher family decided to focus their ambitions on the construction of a new office building in Detroit, one that would be advertised as "The Most Beautiful Building in the World"
The Fisher Building In 1927 the Fisher family asked architect Albert Kahn to design a building that would be a combination of office space, shopping and, being a family supporting the arts, contain a theater. Fred Fisher, announcing the plans in January of 1927 commented, "Our aim is to create the outstanding building in the city and express in this highest character the Fisher's appreciation of what our adopted city means to us". In August of 1927 Fred had the honor of turning the first shovel of dirt at the gala ground breaking ceremony. Although Kahn designed the entire $35 million complex to be constructed in three phases (Two 28 story towers flanking a 60 story central tower), only the first phase, the 28 story tower containing the theater, was completed
before the Great Depression of 1929.
Located at Grand Boulevard and 2nd Avenue, across from the Kahn designed General Motors Building, the 28 story tower was topped with gilded roof panels that the Detroit Times described as "ablaze with light ... It presents a startling spectacle ... The tower will be to Detroit what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris". WJR-AM, trademark broadcast "From the Golden Tower of the Fisher Building", for many years. During World War II the gilded roof was replaced with green Terra Cotta so the building would not become a beacon for enemy bombers.
The arcade in the Fisher building includes 40 varieties of marble from Europe, Africa and parts of the US. 30 feet wide by 44 feet high, it is L-shaped and provides access to 500,000 square feet of office space, 99,000 square feet of retail space and the Fisher Theater.
Mayer & Graven, well-known theater architects, were engaged to design the theater. With a lobby complete with a pond, goldfish, turtles and five talking macaws, the theater was a very special part of the building. Decorated with a Mayan/Byzantine motif, the gilded walls dazzled visitors who attended movies, organ recitals, performances by the house orchestra and stage shows. The cavernous theater seated 3500 and was decorated with gilded statues, banana trees, columns, and frescos. Even the organ console was designed to match the Mayan decor of the theater.
The organ, a 4 manual, 34 rank Wurlitzer, was installed in the theater as a memorial to the parents of the seven Fisher Brothers who enjoyed classical organ and also singing gospel hymns. Therefore, the capability of performing both kinds of music influenced the specification of the organ voicing given to the manufacturer. The resulting instrument contains stops not usually found on theater organs (French Horn, Cor Anglais, Quintadena Celeste, Pedal Open Wood Diapason and a large number of string ranks). The reeds are filled with fire, the strings are lush and the flutes and tibias are mellow and sweet. This allows the music of Bach and Widor to be performed with magnificent glory as well as the music of Gershwin, Rogers and Porter. Another significant feature of the organ is the arrangement of the stop tabs by chamber rather than just loud-to-soft within a pitch as is common on other theater organs.
In the Fisher Theater, the organ was installed in 4 chambers with the grand piano on a small balcony on the left side of the theater. The console was on a lift in the pit, which rose from the basement to above the stage level. The organ was originally intended to accompany silent movies when the orchestra was not available.
Changing Times Sound films came in soon after the dedication on November 11, 1928. Shortly afterward the organ was only used for intermissions on Friday night, played by the great Don Miller, as well as an occasional radio broadcast from radio station WJR whose studio was located in the tower several floors above. The theater continued to air films through the years, but the usage of the organ became far less frequent.
Modernization The Nederlander Company began managing the Fisher Theater early in 1961 after the movie palace was converted for live theater performances. The Mayan interior was replaced with simple elegant marble, Indian rosewood and walnut paneling, and crystal and bronze decorative work. The original 3500 seats were scaled down to 2089, to ensure an intimate atmosphere and optimal sightlines for viewing the traveling Broadway productions.
The Fisher Brothers placed the Organ up for sale and bids were received from a west coast company and a local Detroiter, George Orbits. Although the bid placed by Mr Orbits was much lower than the one submitted by others, the Fisher Brothers decided to award the sale to him so that the organ would remain in Detroit. George began to remove the organ piece by piece to a storage facility. About 2/3 of the way through the project he received help from other organ enthusiasts.
In 1962 the Fisher Brothers sold the Fisher Building to Louis and Harold Berry, of International Hotels. In 1974, it was sold again, to Trizec Corporation, Ltd., of Montreal, who continue to maintain the facility today.
Taken from dtos.org website