Raw Video: A Rare Visit Inside Detroit's Long-Abandoned National Theatre

January 17, 2014, 4:52 PM by  Bill McGraw

The ornate plaster is peeling off the balcony and falling into dusty clumps on the floor. The stage looks like a gaping wound. Bricks, tree limbs and bottles are scattered about the floor. Snow covers the skeleton of the ticket booth. All 800 seats are gone.

Deadline Detroit visited the ghostly interior of the historic National Theatre on Monroe Street Friday and captured the dismal scene in the rudimentary video at the top of the page. 

The 102-year-old National is one of Detroit’s most historic abandoned buildings, and it's currently caught in a three-way tug-of-war between a longtime owner, the City of Detroit and Rock Ventures LLC, Dan Gilbert’s real estate arm, as Amy Elliott Bragg pointed out in a recent column in the Free Press.

The building, believed to be the only surviving theater designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, served as a showplace for vaudeville, films, burlesque and X-rated porn during its lifetime.

Restoring it, as a theater or for another use, would be a striking preservation victory in a city that has obliterated much of its 312-year history.

Vacant since 1975, the National is now the last remaining building on the south side of Monroe between Randolph and Farmer. Workers are putting the finishing touches on demolition of a four-story parking garage and retail space on the rest of the block.

The theater appears to be in solid shape on the outside, and has been secured by a stout wooden barrier for years. The inside is increasingly in shambles.

The National is the only survivor from Detroit’s first theater district, according to Dan Austin, creator of

“The old Detroit Opera House and the Gayety, Temple, Columbia, Liberty and Family theaters were among the venues that once stood nearby, making it Detroit’s main avenue of entertainment.

"Designed by Kahn and his associate Ernest Wilby, the National’s exterior is a Baroque-Moorish-Beaux-Arts hybrid with a Moroccan or Egyptian flavor. Like Kahn’s earlier Grinnell Brothers Music House (built in 1908), the National is covered in white terra cotta fired at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery.

"It features two proud eagles, carved stone rosettes, cupids and other small Art Noveau details dotting the facade. It has twin, 64-foot gold-domed towers with airy grill work and a grand, recessed Romanesque arch over the entrance. Originally, the archway features a massive stained glass window. Both the Moorish towers and the arch were dramatically lighted up by hundreds of bulbs at night, giving the theater an amusement park-like vibe. There was an iron framework, illuminated marquee with glass panels, but this was later replaced with more sterile, modern-looking signage.”

The National was Detroit’s last burlesque theater, Austin wrote.

“The runway was lighted from beneath with multicolored panels that the dancers pranced around in their high heels. In the 1960s, evening shows would often start at 8:35 p.m. Among the women strutting their stuff were Miss Dee Dee Devine, Miss Lorelei Lee, Miss Gina Gina, Miss Linda Love, Miss Leslie Lang and Miss Ann Darling.”

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