Blog: Joe Zainea

A peek at the playbills of the Majestic Theater and the Magic Stick live music venues shows that every day is a different act. How does Joe Zainea, longtime owner of The Majestic entertainment empire, keep things fresh from week to week? Follow on for his tales of revival and survival.

Post 4: Woodward Avenue Memoirs

My motto in life is "Forget arrogance, try humor."

And I have to get into something light-hearted in nature. I like to remember what Woodward Avenue was like in the 40s and early 50s – it was packed with people. They were living in the SROs (single resident occupancy hotels) in the neighborhood, like the Strathmore across the street at 70 West Alexandrine, now abandoned but soon to be renovated. And these people would take the train in from the outlying towns and cities, perhaps as close in as Royal Oak and as far away as Fenton. They'd get off at the train station on East Grand Boulevard and Beaubien, and they would either ride their bikes or get a cab to their jobs at Burroughs or in Hudson's or at one of the banks, and they would stay as the SROs Monday throughThursday nights, and after work on Friday they could take their ride back on the train to their suburban homes.

But during those weeknights they had to be entertained, they had to eat, and it caused this area around here to be a beehive of activity. In every restaurant you had to wait for a seat. There was no such thing as empty seats in restaurants. The bowling alley was very busy with people entertaining themselves that way.

We had a string of "taxi dance" halls, where the guys would go and pay a small amount of money to get into the place, and buy a string of tickets at ten cents a piece and go up – usually they were above a bar or restaurant – and they would be in what we used to call a "dime a dance" hall. And there would be a spinning glass bowl hung from the ceiling, the girls would be all around the periphery, and you'd take the ticket out.

And if the girl was just, you know, mediocre, you'd say "How many tickets?" and she'd put her finger up meaning "one ticket," and you’d give her the ticket and you'd dance with her. Or if she was a little better she'd put up two fingers. And if she was a hottie she'd put her hands up meaning "ten tickets," and she was willing to give you a whole lot more than just a dance! She was looking to be entertained for the rest of the night, or to entertain.

That's what this whole neighborhood was full of at that time, from the river all the way up to the New Center area. We did not even have a parking lot. You didn't need it. The streetcars were jammed. On a Saturday night, when Windsor had their "blue laws," where everything had to close down at 11:30pm, the Canadians would all get on the streetcar at the foot of Woodward and come up to the "north end," which was what this area used to be referred to as. And they'd go to the Greystone Ballroom which was across the street, or to Convention Hall if there was an auto show; that's where the old Vernor's Building is. Now it's a Wayne State apartment building.

And they'd come in the bowling alley, or one of the bars – we had six bars within this block. Every corner had 2-3 bars. And restaurants. And it was just jammed. And it was a beehive of activity. Our population in Detroit at that time was around two million people. But the concentration of people in the downtown and the Midtown area, as we refer to them today, might be as high, and I'm saying might be, as high as half a million or three-quarters of a million. It was jammed with people in those days.

What the SROs were, they were single rooms, no baths, no commode, and you had to go down the hall. And what the men would do, they would team up, and put a day bed in a room, you know, one regular bed and a day bed. Then they would buddy up with someone who was working the next shift, and one would use the room while the other was working, to split the cost of the room.

If you wanted to take a shower you'd go to the concierge at the desk, you gave him some coin, and they gave you a towel, a bar of soap and a slug, a token, to enter the shower. And the trick was you'd never close the door until your buddy took over!

They had plenty of places for women then too, with the same set-up. And one of them was down by the old Kresge Building, right near the Masonic Temple. It was called the Angelus House, and it was all women. And when some of these guys wanted to have a date they would go there and introduce themselves; they would have mixers, you know, social mixers. One was run by the Baptists, and you had to be extremely careful about that one, because they were very very strict and prudish. Another one was run by the League of Catholic Women, the Tracy Center. These were all in that area down there, near Times Square.

How many theaters did we have? How many bowling alleys did we have? I would say between the river and where the three freeways are now that we must have had 30 bowling alleys. And they were all busy. Now we have one. Our place. Isn't that amazing?

It was a different day and age. I remember on a Saturday night the streetcars would have three cars in tandem. It was a great method of transportation, and people didn't stop riding them – the lines were bought up by General Motors so they could enhance their bus business. So on those streetcars all the doors would open up and the people, some of them these Canadians skirting the blue laws, they would rush out, and we had to be ready for 'em.

And they would get a little drunk, and they might shack up with a woman. And they'd go back to Amherstburg the next day, to their Anglican church, and they'd pray to God that they'd never go back to that sin city. Sure as heck they'd be here the next week!

We had a counter man, an African-American man named Henry, he was like a "gentleman's gentleman." He was a concessionaire; my dad did not believe in having employees. If you worked here you concessioned out something, you had your own business. And Henry was the perfect gentleman's gentleman. He wore a smock and a small leather tie. He reserved your bowling ball for you. He used to collect the bowling balls, because they all had numbers on them behind the counter. When you arrived to bowl he checked your coat, and he had ready for you your special cigar. He had a long cigar counter. He had maybe a hundred different brands of cigars rolling in a machine like a hot dog roller, and he had a paper cutter, and he cut the tip of the cigar off and he handed you your cigar.

And out of the floor came a gas jet, and you puffed on your cigar to light it with the gas jet. He had stacks of paper, and he stapled them and made cuffs. Everyone used to bowl in long sleeves, so he made paper cuffs. He didn't charge you for that. He'd take your coat, he'd brush it and hang it up, and he'd have your bowling ball for you, and then he'd ask if you wanted your hat cleaned while you were bowling, or if you wanted it just blocked.

He had one of these machines behind the counter, I remember from when I was a boy; you'd put the hat on, you'd step on a pedal, and steam would come, and you'd turn the hat, and he'd have a brush and he'd clean the hat, and he'd put it up on the shelf and it'd be ready when you were finished. Then he would take your shoes and shine them while you were bowling, for the two or three hours that you're bowling. He rented you his bowling shoes. And he'd charge a dime, and when you'd come back to the counter you gave him your "horse numbers" he took your bets. At the end of the day he'd probably make one dollar off you. And he sent all four of his kids to college. They were a little older than me.

The kitchen was a concession. It was called "Connie’s Polish Kitchen." And my father had a spiral notebook in his shirt pocket, and that was his accounting system. And we'd open the bar at exactly seven o'clock in the morning, because the people living in the SROs wanted to go out for breakfast. And breakfast would include pickled pigs' feet, a raw egg inside a small glass of beer, with a shot of Kessler's whiskey next to it – Kessler's "Smooth as Silk" whiskey; it was cheap-cheap-cheap whiskey!

And if they went over to get a breakfast from Connie she would call out to my father, "Al, Stosh- seventy-five cents." And he'd mark it inside this little spiral notebook, and you left. And you'd be back after work, and you'd bowl and you'd drink, and he'd mark it in this little spiral notebook. And come Friday when you got your paycheck you came in, my dad had a pocket full of money, he'd cash your check. He'd put some money aside because some of them didn't speak fluent English. They were eastern European immigrants, and he'd put it in a money envelope and he'd say, "Here, give this to the concierge at the hotel to pay the rent for the week." And he was like a social worker! And at the same time he made money off them. It was pretty cool!

We opened at seven in the morning every day. And they'd be lined up outside. These were the ones that worked at the hospitals. They were called, it was a bad word, they were called "DPs". That's not a nice word, "displaced people." They did the worst jobs, way down below the level of any orderly, the worst jobs. They were from eastern Europe. It was not nice, not a nice thing to call someone a "DP".