I’ve always wondered why Grosse Pointers were viewed as elitist snobs by the rest of the world.
When meeting a new acquantance, have you ever hesitated to say you were from Grosse Pointe and instead said, "the Detroit area?"
I’ve grown up with so many hard working families in all five Pointes that the title never seemed to fit the bill. Although Grosse Pointe was a bastion for the wealthy of the Detroit area beginning in the late 1800s, there seems to be a very specific event that catapulted Pointers from extravagantly wealthy to the stratosphere of the elite.
The Great Depression apparently didn’t mean much to some Pointers
Wednesday, Jan. 29, 1930, 60 days after Black Friday changed the lives of millions of Americans beginning the Great Depression; one of the most elite grand openings of the newest “Talkie” theatre in America took place--in Grosse Pointe Farms.
The Punch and Judy Theatre, which still stands on Kercheval Avenue between Fisher and McKinley Roads has long since been transformed into business offices, but for a brief moment in time, it was the playhouse to the mega-wealthy.
Funded privately as a “pet project of the wealthy young social set of Grosse Pointe,” according to the Grosse Pointe Civic Review, published Jan 23., 1930, the playhouse was funded by “Edsel Ford, Arthur Anderson, Wendell W. Anderson, Lawrence D. Buhl, Roy D. Chapin, J. B. Ford, Jr., Phelps Newberry, Wesson Seyburn and Charles Wright, Jr.”
To put things in perspective, a movie ticket in 1930 usually would have cost one 10 cents. According to the Grosse Pointe Civic Review, Tickets to the premiere movie shown at the Punch and Judy, Disraeli, were $5 each, and sold out long in advance. That is a mark-up of 4,900 percent--two months into the worst economy to hit the United States.
Normal ticket prices after the premiere weren’t quite so high, but were still significantly above average—a more modest 650-900 percent above normal. On weekend evenings, $0.75 was the going rate for a ticket in the main theatre, while $1 reserved a spot in the loge—a balcony area with plush seats that allowed smoking.
The rest of the world chimes in
According to Edward W. Morrison, a special correspondent to the Standard Examiner out of Utah, “No longer will it be necessary for the residents of Grosse Pointe, Detroit’s millionaire Lake Shore colony, hungry for a movie, to brush elbows with Mami, the cook, and Oswald, the chauffeur. The elite of Grosse Pointe have turned up their noses at the rest of the world and gone in for movies of their own.”
Whether Morrison added the “hungry for a movie” phrase as social commentary designed specifically to judge wealthy Pointer’s and get his digs in will forever remain a mystery.
The fact remains that in 1930 many American’s still couldn’t even afford the basics. According to a website on the great depression maintained by the Lonestar College System in Texas, the unemployment rate in 1930 was 25 percent. One of the most basic staples, milk, cost $0.14 a gallon. That means that each attendee of the premiere of the Punch and Judy could have bought 36 gallons of milk for the price of their $5 ticket.
To put that in perspective, if one were to assume that a family of four would consume roughly 2 gallons of milk per week, then one ticket to the premiere would have provided milk for a family of four for 18 weeks, or 4 ½ months.
The Punch and Judy sold out of 600 tickets at that price, roughly equating to 21,600 gallons of milk in 1930.
Morrison, further irritated by the extravagance of the theatre, paid close attention regular ticket prices after the premiere, further noting, “There will be no .10-cent shows, although pictures shown at the theatre, will not always be first-run exhibitions. Not on your life, not 10 cents nor even 50 cents. The price, night after night will be $1.50.”
An advertisement in The Grosse Pointe Civic Review dated Jan. 30, 1930, the ticket price is listed at half the amout about which Morrison wrote, which either means that Morrison was given misinformation, or the owners of the Punch and Judy, dually aware of the dire economic circumstances that were undoubtedly negatively affecting even a few Pointers, then “slashed” the prices by 50 percent to accommodate the needs of those struggling in the early depression era.
Morrison wasn’t through, however. From his writing desk in Utah, he continued to express his clear disdain towards the new theatre, its owners, the secretive elitist nature of the venue. He called the Grosse Pointe residents who would attend the shows, “The owners of the Punch and Judy theatre aren’t going out of their way to announce the existence of the house to the rest of Detroit. They do not care whether anybody outside their own huge mansions along the winding boulevards adjoining Lake Ste. Claire ever enters the place. They hope the admission price will be high enough to keep the rest of the world away."
Our Utah compatriot wasn’t the only out-of-state journalist to write about the Punch and Judy. Sam Mindell, an international news services staff correspondent wrote about the new theatre for the New Castle News in Pennsylvainia.
From an issues dated Jan. 1, the headline shouts, “Rich Folks of Detroit Await Homey Theatre”
Mindell described the theatre to his readers, saying, “It will be a residential theatre, dedicated to the needs of those who live in th fashionable vicinity of Grosse Pointe. Its door will open sometime in January and numbered among those who are directly responsible for its erection are Grosse Pointe’s most influential citizens.”
On a slightly mor favorable note, The Punch and Judy, according to Mindell, “is the first of its kind believed erected.”
Unlike the papers in Pennsylvania and Utah, The New York Times wasn’t quite so hard on the theatre. The headline for Jan.30 reads, “Detroit Opens Talkie House for Wealthy.”
In commenting about how the premiere was handled, the article continued, “The opening tonight of the Punch and Judy theatre in the exclusive residential district, Gross Pointe Farms, was a success from every standpoint.”
The timing wasn't good for a gala at the new Punch and Judy, but the owners went ahead with it, anyway. Were they all dedicated elitists? Edsel Ford, the man who created the $5 working day, and Henry B. Joy, the man who concieved of and implemented the first transcontinental highway--these men were simpleton socialites? Should they be judged as such?
These 'wealthy benfactors' privately funded the construction of an extravegant theatre--for pubic use--prior to the market crash of 1929. They chose to go ahead with its grand opening during a very bad time in American history. The timing may have been bad, but clearly the economy wasn't about to get in the way of a good time.
The only theatre left in Grosse Pointe
Grosse Pointe no longer has its residential theatre like the Punch and Judy—but the colonial inspired shell designed by Robert O. Derrick still remains intact protecting the business offices inside.
The city of Grosse Pointe Park, interestingly, does have its own theatre that has similar qualities of the original Punch and Judy. It is for residents only, so don’t forget your park passes. For other Pointers, you can see a movie there, too.
On one designated night per week and in the summer months only.
Currently, the Okulski Theatre located in the Park’s Windmill Pointe Park is showing True Grit. Ticket prices are very reasonable: $4 for Matinee and $6 for adults in the evening.
Much like the owners of the Punch and Judy, Grosse Pointe Park has not gone out of its way to advertise its theatre to outsiders…. And by outsiders, of course, I mean other non-Park Pointers.
History has a funny way of repeating itself.