The World’s Greatest Outdoor Spectacle

This panoramic image of the stadium came from the program for the 1923 Awakening

This panoramic image of the stadium came from the program for the 1923 Awakening

For a brief period in the early 1920s, people flocked to the intersection of Dexter Boulevard and Richton Street to witness swimmers, orchestras, acrobats, pyrotechnics, elephants, horse races, and skydivers take part in the “World’s Greatest Outdoor Spectacle.” It was here that the Shadukiam Grotto Stadium stood. The venue was operated by the Shadukiam Grotto branch of the Masonic order. This 17,420-seat outdoor complex was home to “The Awakening,” a series of performances which combined acts across four stages, a water ballet tank, two circus rings, trapeze wires, and even a horse track.

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The Butterfly Girls were among the Awakening’s aquatic performers.

The primary focus of these shows was water ballet, the forerunner to today’s synchronized swimming. A large team of swimmers are listed in the program for the 1923 show, and they are split into acts such as the Disappearing Water Nymphs, the Butterfly Girls, and the Gondola Girls. Their routines were supplemented by wildly diverse performances on the adjacent stages. The 1923 program provides brief and evocative descriptions such as “Jolly Coleman in Dental Dexterity;” “Virginia, Queen of the Air, in a thrilling teeth slide;” high wire artist Choy Ling Foo “in a slide for life, aided by a good head of hair;” “Jack Morgan, the dancing horse;” and “George Hanneford, the world’s greatest riding comedian.” To add to the excitement, Durant Motors cars were given out to three lucky audience members each night. And of course, an event of this magnitude required a spectacular opening and closing. Following an introductory concert, the Awakening was kicked off by a skydiver parachuting into the stadium from an airplane. A fireworks display above the Stadium’s Arabesque backdrop closed out the night.

The fireworks display that closed the Awakening is captured here in a 1923 souvenir photograph.

The fireworks display that closed the Awakening is captured here in a 1923 souvenir photograph.

By 1927, the Grotto Stadium vanished from city directories, with apartment buildings appearing in the vicinity. In the 1950s—the era of Ester Williams and the aquamusical—synchronized swimming performances found a new home in Detroit. The Aqua Theater along the western bank of the James Scott Memorial Fountain’s reflecting pool on Belle Isle played host to shows such as the Aqua Follies. This venue was much more modest—with no room for elephants or dancing horses.

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