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Detroit theater built in '36 is demolished

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MATINEE IDLE: Detroit theater built in '36, closed since 2000, is demolished

August 26, 2004

BY MARSHA LOW

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Below the turquoise sign that juts toward the sky, a mangled mass of metal is all that remains of northwest Detroit's Norwest Theater.

Across the street, Barnard Gill watched as wrecking balls and bulldozers smashed the art deco movie house to the ground. He shook his head as another piece of his childhood disappeared in the back of a dump truck.

Standing on Grand River, Gill, 42, returned to the days when he was just 13 years old. Summers were spent mowing lawns and saving wisely so he could hop a bus on Saturdays and meet his friends at the Norwest. There he'd treat himself to a box of Raisinets, a bag of red licorice and an ice cold Pepsi. Then he'd settle into the burgundy velvet seats, ready for the show, feeling so grown up sitting in the theater without his parents.

"I'm bummed to see it come down," said Gill, a lifelong Detroiter. "It was a very special place."

But as more film fans turn to home video or flock to multi-screen movie palaces, thousands of old theaters around the country have closed, some becoming vacant lots or shells for new businesses.

Robert Sloan, owner of the Norwest, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. But Cory Jacobson, owner of the neighborhood Phoenix Theaters in Detroit and Farmington Hills, said it is increasingly difficult for small movie houses to compete.

"There aren't many of us left, and those that are left struggle," he said. "It's become a labor of love to run a neighborhood theater."

In the spring of 2003, Brian Vosburg and his co-workers at Detroit's Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. began working to save the Norwest. The nonprofit agency renovates Detroit homes and playgrounds and restores the city's commercial buildings. Vosburg talked to neighbors and asked architects to consider turning the building into a new business. There was no interest.

"The Norwest was the only original building left on Grand River from the 1920s and 1930s era when a lot of the commercial buildings were built," Vosburg said.

The Norwest opened in 1936 as a single-screen theater seating 1,366 people. It was a first-run movie house until it closed in 1978. The theater re-opened in 1979 as a second-run house until Sloan split the theater in the '80s, creating the double-screened Norwest 1&2. The theater closed in 2000.

Demolition of the Norwest began Monday and is expected to continue into early next week. Two fast food restaurants will soon join the other fast food chains already operating down the block.

At Robinson's Main Event Barber & Beauty Shop Wednesday, Terrence Dawkins was getting a trim as the sound of the bulldozers hummed across the street.

"You used to be able to walk to get your groceries and walk for a movie," said Dawkins, 47, of Detroit. "But every piece of good is being torn down for fast food and strip malls. It's just disappointing."

Contact MARSHA LOW at 248-351-3299 or [email protected]

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