When the Opera played at Navin Field in Detroit

Spectators watch "Opera Under The Stars" at Navin Field in 1935.

Fans in Detroit pack Navin Field to watch “Opera Under The Stars” in 1935 while the Tigers are on the road.

Tiger fans remember 1935 as the year the team finally won the World Series.

During that wonderful summer, however, there was another “first” at Michigan and Trumbull that had nothing at all to do with baseball.

It was opera.

The Tigers were gunning for their second consecutive American League pennant under manager Mickey Cochrane. Navin Field, meanwhile, was transformed every evening from a ball field to a makeshift opera house.

It is one of the forgotten chapters of Detroit history.

The brainchild of the city’s Board of Commerce, it was known as “Opera Under the Stars.” At a time when the city was still recovering from the Great Depression, the venture provided jobs for nearly 400 people, including those from two local theatrical companies.

Months in the making, at an expenditure of just over $50,000, “Opera Under the Stars” boasted an 84-night schedule that summer of 1935, rain or shine. It was not just opera, though; musical comedies had also been booked.

After the dress rehearsal for opening night, the Detroit Free Press wrote this account: “Nothing—not even a cemetery—is supposed to be as desolate as a baseball park at night.” But, the writer went on, “Stage hands looked up and found the sky auspicious. Overhead the stars were blazing but they seemed of very low candlepower compared with the brilliance of the floodlights pouring onto the stage.”

Shortly after the final out was recorded after every game, crews went to work. Right on top of the infield, they assembled the stage in jigsaw fashion with 700 cross-numbered pieces. Enormous in size, it spanned one dugout to the other. The stage faced the 8,000 or so seats in the upper and lower deck directly behind the plate. Workers removed the backstop screen to make way for banks of multi-colored lights. The dugouts and clubhouses, meanwhile, essentially became the backstage area. Microphones and amplifiers were set up so that even those in the upper deck could easily hear the actors’ voices. Five towering pylons were set up on the stage, with scenery hung between them.

Baseball games started around 3:00 in those days, and routinely lasted two hours or less The field had to be converted before the first opera customers arrived, which did not leave workers much time to get everything in order. Usually they only had about two hours, which was no easy task, especially on hot, humid evenings.

That first night in June was full of pomp and ceremony. Michigan Secretary of State Orville Atwood, as well as Detroit Mayor Frank Couzens, gave speeches lauding the Motor City’s theatrical initiative. “The Student Prince” was the title of the first show played Navin Field. Vendors hawked programs, popcorn, and soda pop. The orchestra, which included two grand pianos and a harp, played “The Star Spangled Banner” before the show commenced.

The lighting technicians worked out a system that allowed the actors and stagehands to change the set décor in mid-performance. Wrote the Free Press: “The technique has ended the need of the curtain which for years masked the mechanics of scene changing. Their lights send up a brilliant flash that the eyes of the audience cannot pierce, and behind this stagehands can go about the prosaic work of changing the sets unobserved.” From the façade of the upper deck behind the plate hung a long row of spotlights, “like blue moons and pink moons and yellow moons.” The premier performance was a great success, with attendance numbering in the thousands. “The heart of the Motor City will beat in a new rhythm when the day’s work is done and evening brings leisure hours for “Opera Under the Stars.”

Planners were initially concerned that the clang, bang, and screech from streetcars outside the ballpark would interfere with the patrons’ enjoyment of the performance. They solved that problem, however. The Department of Street Railways (DSR) carefully inspected the tracks, eliminating bumps and noisy rails. During the shows, uniformed men were stationed at strategic intervals along the tracks. Their job was to caution motormen to slow their cars down to five miles an hour.

General Motors sponsored the performances, which aired live on WJR from 9:30 to 10:30. “Actors, chorines and musicians have rehearsed ‘Under the Stars’ and have found that once night is down, the lights on, the scenery set, and they are in costume, the feeling of the out-of-doors fades and it is genuine theater.”

Viewers that summer enjoyed the 36-piece orchestra perform such favorites as “Rose Marie,” “My Maryland,” and “Blossom Time.”

Looking back on all this, one has to wonder what effect the nightly construction of an opera stage had on the infield. It should come as no surprise that both home and visiting players complained often about the poor conditions of the grass and dirt.

The grand spectacles, however, did not last beyond 1935. The following June, the Free Press wrote of the attention the venture had drawn from opera fans across the country hopeful of its success. Detroiters were curious whether it would continue in 1936. “Regretfully, the information is passed on that the experiment that proved such an enjoyable artistic success, whatever its fate otherwise, will not be revived this summer. Negotiations looking to that end came to naught and the venture appears to be definitely in the discard.”

Opera at Michigan and Trumbull was all over. The fat lady had sung, indeed.