A Night at the Stone Burlesk
When Sat 10/7, 10:30 PM
Where Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway
When people think of family heirlooms, antique treasures like bibles and jewelry usually come to mind. Then there's the case of Matthew Jacobson--he got handed down a giant collection of vintage porn.
Jacobson, who runs the indie record label Le Grand Magistery, moved to Chicago three years ago, when his wife started grad school at Northwestern. He grew up in Detroit, where his family had established something of an entertainment legacy. His great-great-grandfather owned a speakeasy; legend has it he was murdered by the Purple Gang, the Jewish mafia. His great-grandmother's family had a hand in just about every theater in the city. And his grandfather Milton Jacobson ran the Stone Burlesk Theater, one of the more notorious landmarks in Detroit's postwar entertainment history. The Stone was a frequent target of the police and the city's censor bureau. Singer Johnnie Ray was busted by the vice squad there in the 50s. Actor Forrest Tucker went there to gallivant with topless strippers; his friend Milton took Polaroids.
The Stone was in business for close to 50 years, and during that time Milton assembled a remarkable archive of film and burlesque ephemera. "He was a complete pack rat," Matthew says. Included in his trove were boxes and boxes of vintage lobby posters, scores of nudie mags, and, by Matthew's count, more than 10,000 adult film shorts. But if it hadn't been for Matthew's intervention, the films might not have survived. "My grandfather was about to have them melted down for the silver, until he found out it wasn't worth it," he says. "That's when I asked if I could have them. I sort of lucked into this stuff that I otherwise honestly would never have had any interest in."
The collection became Matthew's in 2004, but getting the reels from Detroit to his home in Lakeview has been an ongoing process--there are thousands he hasn't even looked at yet. Now he's culled some of them for a special one-time event he's calling "A Night at the Stone Burlesk," a tribute of sorts to his grandfather. In addition to the films, Matthew plans on playing some of the original audio recordings he's discovered in the stash, and of course no burlesque experience would be complete without dancers, cigarette girls, and racy prizes.
Milton Jacobson started managing theaters in 1936, at the age of 23. He'd dropped out of school nine years before, briefly working for Ford--"spitting tacks," as he put it--before taking a job as an usher at the Majestic Theater, owned by his uncle, Jacob "Silver Dollar Jake" Schrieber. He eventually took over the Majestic and four other theaters: the Fine Arts, the Colonial, and the Blackstones 1 and 2. He bought the Blackstone 2 in 1937, renaming it the Stone Theater to avoid confusion.
Like many other second-run theaters at the time, the Stone mostly showed westerns and spy flicks, but Milton was always looking for ways to improve business. To promote a jungle-themed movie he chained up a live alligator on the sidewalk, "with somebody there, like, splashing buckets of water on it every so often," Matthew says. As factory production increased during World War II, with workers ending their shifts at all hours, he started keeping the Stone open around the clock. He supplemented the theater's programming with Screeno, an on-screen bingo game, and other games with a vaudevillian twist: among them were a version of musical chairs in which the hot seat actually carried an electrical charge, and Chest of Gold, a sort-of precursor to Let's Make a Deal.
In the late 40s, with television cutting into attendance at the Stone, Milton decided to abandon cowboy movies and turn his theater into a burlesque house. At first a theatrical agent supplied the entertainment, but within a few years Milton was booking dancers and bands on his own. In the early 50s he ordered a slew of mail-order girlie films from a traveling salesman, replaced his 35-millimeter projector with a 16, and started playing them between the live acts. Because the films were silent, he also purchased a reel-to-reel tape machine and recorded music interspersed with his own wild, nasal patter, usually fast-paced ads for food and merchandise. His crafty deals were hilarious and ingenious: a set of binoculars, great for watching the girls, is free when you buy this unbelievable nudie book--don't show the wife--and it's all yours for 50 cents! A two-dollar value!
Some of the tapes, meant to entice passersby, were played on endless loops through speakers hidden in the building's facade, which was plastered with lascivious paintings Milton designed himself. "Well, you're just in time to see this terr-rific stage show," he announces over a bebop piano riff, in his pinched radio-announcer voice. "Get your tickets now, because the girls are going to be onstage in just a few moments for the big terrific stage show. That's right, these girls are beautiful, they're gorgeous honeys. You're gonna see Mary, you're gonna see Dorothy, you're gonna see Norma..." Matthew's father even recorded some between-set banter when he was a teenager. "My Dad worked at the Stone from the age of five until he turned 17, when he left for New York," Matthew says. "My grandfather would put him on the stage--when he was five years old--and get him to say, 'The more you clap, the more they take off!'"
The Detroit censor bureau issued citations to the Stone, occasionally seizing a film or arresting a dancer who showed too much, and the police kept a thick file on the place, which they handed over to Milton in the 70s. But for the most part Milton managed to stay out of serious trouble. He used his office as a special screening room where he'd ply certain visitors with brandy, which Matthew thinks probably helped.
Matthew and his wife are in the process of cataloging and preserving Milton's collection, but it's a daunting task, and they've only gone through a few hundred films so far. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. The posters, some of them certainly worth thousands of dollars, spent most of the last 50 years in a damp midwestern garage and haven't fared too well. But the films, which lived in a closet under Milton's stairs, are in remarkably good shape.
The movies span a half century of American mores and values, and Matthew says "the earliest ones are very tame: a woman on a sailboat, possibly in a bra or a shirt, showing some cleavage. One film we're showing is of a woman playing golf--except she doesn't know how to play, so she's using the golf club like a pool cue. She finally sinks the ball, and then stands up and smiles, and there's a little wind in her hair, and she looks larger-than-life, and that's it. I imagine that was supposedly titillating at the time. But there's something about them. Even when they're not showing nudity and they're not these 'erotic' things, you still know this was illicit, deviant." But as the decades progress, the images get more graphic. "The 'spanking parties' are a big one. You start seeing breasts with pasties, then bare breasts, then waist down, then women playing with themselves, then women and men together, and then, like, a woman with five guys in wolf masks."
The shorts--sometimes no more than three minutes long and often untitled--are spliced together into reels of six or seven films and often accompanied by notes and dates scratched in pencil to keep track of when they'd been screened, and bear cryptic phrases like "tits--off color--door," or "bathtub--oil on body--sexy." "See that box over there?" Matthew says. "It's labeled 'Beaver.' There's another one around here marked 'Tame Beaver.'"
After the Detroit riots in 1967 the neighborhood around the Stone started to deteriorate. By the mid-70s the dancers had been retired and the theater was screening hard-core porn exclusively. Milton finally left the business, selling his beloved Stone in 1983. It burned down six years later; all that remains is a vacant lot that Detroit Tigers fans park in when they go to Comerica Park. "'The show,' as he called the theater, was his life," says Matthew. "I don't think he even liked the films that much." Always flamboyant--he wears a handlebar mustache and walks with a cane to this day--Milton now lives in Florida, where he can't quite get the burlesque out of his blood. "He puts on vaudeville reviews at his retirement condo," says Matthew. "He dresses the old ladies up in straw hats and gives them dance routines."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.