The 800-seat Senate Theatre – located at Michigan near Livernois – is one of the anchors of an amazing neighborhood. Within a couple blocks you’ll also find Prince Valley Foods, Sts. Peter & Paul Orthodox Cathedral, Abick’s Bar (one of Detroit’s oldest) some urban farming, and much more.
It’s also the headquarters of the Detroit Theatre Organ Society (DTOS) and home to the 1928 Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ from the original Fisher Theatre.
The organ was installed in the Senate after the Fisher converted to a stage house in 1960 – and can still be enjoyed at eight concerts per year, March through June, featuring some of the finest virtuosos anywhere. There are also movie nights and many other special events at the theatre,
According to DTOS secretary Kevin Werner, the group’s 100 members are drawn by their passion for the organs that accompanied silent movies in the early part of the last century, and also by their interest in the Senate.
“I’ve been a member since the mid-1970s,” says Werner, who started taking organ lessons at the age of eight. “I played at weddings, a few church jobs, local theater organ club functions, and Pontiac’s Pizza and Pipes in the 1980s.” Now, he says, he plays mainly for his own pleasure.
With the current interest in Detroit’s revival – and the development in Corktown a bit farther down Michigan – the DTOS is doing its part to draw people to the neighborhood. In March alone, the theatre scheduled “The Godfather” Parts 1 and 2, the “So You Think You Can Lip Sync” competition, and a pops concert by noted organist Simon Gledhill.
“We also host local school concerts,” says Werner, “as well as organizations like the Lighthouse Academy and the Ballet Folklórico de Detroit”
The Detroit Theatre Organ Society is a 501(c) 3 non-profit, and any donations help maintain the theatre and organ,
“Detroit is filled with many well-known gems like the Fox, Orchestra Hall and the Detroit Opera House, to name a few,” says Werner. “The city, however, offers many lesser known gems, too!” The Senate, he believes, is prominent among them.
“We ask that people spread the word, tell their friends, and get people to come down here and experience the Senate and the Wurlitzer,” says Werner.
The group’s motto: “Be a part of the music where the music is part of you.’”
The Senate is located at 6424 Michigan Ave. To donate to the DTOS, become a member, or find out about events, visit www.DTOS.org. The Senate Theatre/Detroit is also on Facebook and Twitter, and there is a GoFundMe page.
Schedule of Upcoming Events
Saturday, April 1 8:00 PM Movie: Dr. Strangelove
Sunday, April 23 3:00 PM Dennis James, organ pops concert
Saturday, May 13 6:00 PM Gospel Concert with Kevin Steward, Jr.
Sunday, May 21 3:00 PM Fr. Andrew Rogers, organ pops concert
Saturday, June 17 7:30 PM Play: “When You’ve Been Wronged”
The Organ: The 34-rank instrument is the eight-largest ever built by Wurlitzer, premiering in 1928 when the Fisher was one of Detroit’s premiere movie palaces. In 1960, when the Fisher converted to a stage house, the organ was purchased by George Orbits – who, along with some fellow organ buffs, founded the Detroit Theatre Organ Club (now the DTOS). They installed the Wurlitzer at the Iris Theatre on W Grand Blvd, and when they outgrew that space they purchased the Senate for back taxes. The theatre needed work, to put it mildly: The basement was flooded and the stars could be seen through holes in the roof. Members worked tirelessly on repairs and modifications, and the organ was installed in 1963. Over 700 concerts have been performed to date.
The Theatre: Designed by architect Christian Brandt, the Senate opened October 7, 1926. With 1200 seats then, plus a full working stage, it was mainly a movie theatre serving southwest Detroit. The theatre also presented some stage performers – including a comedian named Amos Jacobs, who became better known as Danny Thomas. After closing in 1955, it stood abandoned and in poor condition until the organ society purchased it in 1962. The dedicatory concert on April 11, 1964 featured the celebrated New York organist Ashley Miller.
By John Bentley