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Band nurtures Detroit roots with fundraiser for historic theater

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published February 13, 2019

  Historic Players Playhouse in downtown Detroit is nearly 100 years old and is renowned for its art and architecture.

Historic Players Playhouse in downtown Detroit is nearly 100 years old and is renowned for its art and architecture.

Photo provided by the Balduck Mountain Ramblers

  From left, Mike Sawicki, John Denomme, Joel Stone, Gerry Castle and Kevin Taylor make up the Balduck Mountain Ramblers.

From left, Mike Sawicki, John Denomme, Joel Stone, Gerry Castle and Kevin Taylor make up the Balduck Mountain Ramblers.

Photo provided by the Balduck Mountain Ramblers

DETROIT — An evening of rootsy music by a popular local band will raise funds for a historic performing arts venue.

The Balduck Mountain Ramblers will play a special concert from 8 to 10:30 p.m. March 8 at historic Players Playhouse, which is home to three amateur theater groups: The Players, The Fine Arts Society of Detroit and The Theater Arts Club of Detroit. Refreshments, a light supper and a tour of the building are part of the evening, along with a two-hour concert by the band.     

“We are proud to host the Ramblers once again at The Players,” Eric Christian, of Grosse Pointe Farms, chair of special events and past president of the Players Playhouse, said in an email interview. “It has become a much-anticipated yearly event. This is a significant event for The Players. The funds that are raised through this event go to maintaining the theater. Our building is approaching 100 years old, and as in any building of this age, we must continually maintain the heat/cooling systems, plumbing, and roof. In addition, these funds support our own theatrical events. We are proud of our theater and it has been our mission to keep amateur theater alive and well in the city of Detroit.”

Founded on the east side in 1983, the Balduck Mountain Ramblers comprise Gerry Castle, of Warren, on banjo, guitar, mandolin and vocals; John Denomme, of Grosse Pointe Woods, on guitar, bass and vocals; Mike Sawicki, of Harper Woods, on bass fiddle and vocals; Grosse Pointe Woods native and former Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit resident Joel Stone, now of Bloomfield Hills, on mandolin, bodhrán, whistle and vocals; and Kevin Taylor, of Grosse Pointe Woods, on banjos, guitar, mandolin, accordion, dobro, steel guitar and vocals. The band plays a mix of bluegrass, folk, cowboy songs, country gospel, Irish music and even a bit of Motown, The Players Playhouse concert has been a nearly annual tradition for the Ramblers since about 2001.

“The Playhouse was built in (the 1920s) and maintenance could be very costly, so anything we could do to help them cover these costs, we were happy to do,” Denomme said in an email interview.

Players Playhouse is run by volunteers, so events like these are important.

“The Players Playhouse is a one of a kind venue,” Christian said. “A state and national historic structure build in 1925, it is one of the finest examples of early cinder block construction and is one of the last — if not the last — fully operational theaters owned and operated by a private, nonprofit theater group. The interior of the theater is truly stunning and immediately transports you back in time. It is adorned by period art including murals by Paul Honore and sculptures by Corrado Parducci. Words cannot do it justice, it truly must be seen to be fully appreciated, but I will tell you this: I have been a Player for going on 20 years and every time I walk into the house, I am still awed by the beauty and grandeur and filled with immeasurable pride that I get to be a part of the history and stewardship of this unique institution.”

Last year, The Players undertook what Christian said was a “six-figure refresh of all of the stage rigging,” and they’re now turning their attention to the aging roof and heating and cooling systems.

Stone’s day job is as a senior curator for the Detroit Historical Society, which operates the Detroit Historical Museum and Dossin Great Lakes Museum. For him, this concert is special on many levels.

“My history with the Playhouse goes a couple layers deep,” Stone said in an email interview. “Of course, in my job with the Detroit Historical Society, we do what we can to promote the city’s historic jewels. The building and the arts organization certainly fall in that category.”

An exhibition about The Players recently ended at the Detroit Historical Museum’s Community Gallery, he said.

“As a professional connection, this building was designed by William Kapp, who later in his career designed both the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum,” Stone added. “As a personal connection, my grandfather was a Player for a while during the 1930s. Coincidently, he also played mandolin.”

The theater tour alone is worth the price of admission.

“As a group, we look forward to the Players gig every year, for many reasons,” Stone said. “The acoustics of the room are great onstage. It’s more fun to sing and play when the subtleties of the space make you sound good. Because of that, we usually develop a few fresh tunes for the show. It’s nice to give a song a try where it has the best chance to sound good. We try to mix up the set list with Irish tunes, pub tunes, sea chanteys, familiar folk classics and some creative outliers. The audience is generally having as much fun as we are, and that always makes it a blast.”

The band usually plays a number of concerts around St. Patrick’s Day, but Irish music is part of their repertoire year-round. It’s fitting, given that several Ramblers have at least some Irish ancestors. Castle said he’s of Irish descent on both sides of his family. Denomme said he and Taylor also have some Irish ancestry in their families, but Stone “is as Irish as they come,” and even attended college and lived in Ireland for a time.

“When we first started in 1983, we were essentially a bluegrass and folk band,” Denomme said. “Through the years, opportunities arose for good-paying gigs in March, so we started to learn, mostly from Joel, more and more Irish music. At this point, we have compiled so much Irish material that we could probably play the entire seven-hour Nemo’s gig without repeating ourselves. Of course, there are certain standards of the Irish repertoire that are insisted upon, so we do repeat — and repeat, and repeat! — where necessary. When we perform at other venues outside of the month of March, we always include some of our favorite Irish tunes, but we tend to veer more into the bluegrass, folk, Western swing and gospel genres.”

As in past years, the band is slated to perform from noon to 7 p.m. March 10 and from noon to 7 p.m. March 17 at Nemo’s Bar and Grille on Michigan Avenue in Corktown.

“This gig also serves as the Ying to the Yang that follows,” Stone said of the Players Playhouse concert. “We’ve been playing in a tent at Nemo’s on (St. Patrick’s) Parade day (March 10) and St. Patrick’s Day since the early ’90s. While an enjoyable tradition for the band, it is an entirely different experience.”

Early reservations for the Players Playhouse concert are encouraged, as space is limited. Denomme said the theater seats about 160, and shows for the last two years have been nearly sold out.

“Get your tickets before they’re gone,” Castle said by email.

The Players Playhouse is located at 3321 E. Jefferson Ave. in Detroit, roughly 1.5 miles north of the Renaissance Center. If tickets are still available, they can be purchased at the door, but on a cash-only basis, Christian said. Advance ticket purchases can be made with a credit card, he said. Tickets cost $35 per person and include refreshments and a light supper, Christian said. The Players Playhouse office — (313) 259-3385 — is open from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, or callers can leave a message and it will be returned by the next business day. For more information, visit