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Group looks to bring live music back to Belle Isle

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Prior to the 1980s, music used to be a regular attraction on Detroit’s island park, especially at the Remick Band Shell

A concrete awning juts out at an angle over an empty stage. There’s paint peeling and a fence around it.
The Remick Band Shell.
Photos by Tom Perkins

For 26 years, the Detroit Concert Band’s Carol Ober regularly took the stage as first associate clarinet at Belle Isle’s then-popular Remick Band Shell. She fondly recalls the pre-concert picnics with her bandmates, the freighters floating by on the Detroit River during the show, and the “huge crowds” that often numbered in the thousands.

“It’s such an excellent, beautiful location,” says Ober, who played at Remick from the late 1960s until some time in the 1980s. “It was a really nice place to play with good facilities.”

Musicians like Ober could once again take the stage at Remick if a new effort to revive the structure is successful. The nonprofit Music On Belle Isle Group (MOBIG) is in the process of organizing, raising funds, and raising awareness for the project.

The Remick Band Shell, just west of the Belle Isle Aquarium off Loiter Way, is one of the last major undeveloped features of the island.

While ideally it would like to renovate the band shell, MOBIG president Craig Strain says the group’s top priority is to establish a music venue on the island, and for a return to the days prior to the 1980s when concert bands, symphonies, and similar acts made music in the park. If a Remick renovation proves too costly or impractical, the group may try to build a new shell elsewhere on the island.

“A lot of us remember those days and Belle Isle is a perfect place to play—it’s close to downtown Detroit, it’s on the water, and it’s just a beautiful island,” says Strain, who also composes, arranges, and directs various metro Detroit music ensembles.

A map of an island with a red marker where the Remick Band Shell is. Google Earth

So far, MOBIG has held two seasons of concerts that have brought bands to Sunset Point and another location near Remick, and MOBIG member Carol Huff says groups are “calling and begging to play.”

There’s been a lot of interest in the renovation effort. MOBIG has raised 10 times its 2019 fundraising goal, though it still needs more money to pay for the first order of business—a $17,000 architectural assessment to determine Remick’s needs. The shell appears to be in good shape from the outside, but its wiring and plumbing would need to be redone, and Strain says the dressing room underneath the stage is wet and damaged from flooding.

But there’s another factor complicating a possible Remick renovation more than cost. Acclaimed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf is building a new garden on a lot across from the stage. MOBIG envisions putting on concerts that draw thousands of people, and Strain said it planned to use the lot on which the garden is being built for seating.

That’s forcing MOBIG to consider alternatives. Among the ideas that have been floated, but are in no way formal proposals, are moving Remick to another location or building a new band shell on Sunset Point. The point’s trees, picnic table, and views make it an attractive option.

“A new band shell right there is a good spot,” Strain says. “It looks directly out at the Renaissance Center and has water on both sides.”

That would mean, however demolishing a singular band shell with a rich history. The Remick was built in 1950 with funds from Jerome Remick, an early 20th century Detroit sheet music mogul who Detroit Historical Society senior curator Joel Stone called a “massive” force in the music industry.

“From the 1890s through the 1930s, he had all the big hits that were out there nationally, had offices in New York, and published out of Detroit,” Stone says. “You name any of the big hits from that era, chances are they were [published by Remick].”

A large concrete awning hangs over a concrete stage.
A close-up of Remick’s awning.

He retired some time in the 1930s, and after the war put up money for the city to build the band shell. It’s one of a handful of postwar structures built on Belle Isle and the most architecturally interesting of that group, though Stone says there’s no clear record of who designed the midcentury modern shell. It’s also one of a small number around the nation to incorporate such a design. A park in Midland holds one that’s similar, but is also much smaller.

“It’s unique in that so many band shells are more like the Hollywood Bowl with that bowl shape,” Stone says. “It’s a neat structure and I’d hate to see it go away.”

The Detroit Concert Band, led by respected composer Leonard B. Smith, essentially took up residency at the Remick playing John Philip Sousa’s marches, while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and similar acts also regularly performed. Stone says it was one of metro Detroit’s only outdoor venues and predated Meadow Brook Amphitheatre and the region’s other amphitheaters.

“Those guys were out there on Sunday nights for ages,” he adds. ”They would get thousands of people out sitting in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets.”

As the city’s economy declined and crime increased in the 1980s, the Detroit Concert Band moved to the State Fairgrounds, and the shell sat dormant save for a few soul and rock performances throughout the decades.

But Ober highlights what the shell once was, and says she’s hopeful it can be restored.

“It does have a history, and it’s part of Detroit’s history,” she says. “I wish they would renovate the shell and do something with it. I think it’s worth it.”

Belle Isle

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