Subject Focus: Detroit Adventure and the first Noel Night

Detroit Adventure, Calendar of Cultural Events, 1960

On December 7, 2013, the forty-first annual Noel Night will take place in Midtown Detroit. The first Noel Night, on December 19, 1973, was a production of Detroit Adventure, a coalition of organizations that formed in 1959 to promote cultural conversation and experience in the greater Detroit area. In its 21 years of operation, Detroit Adventure served many functions in the pursuit of its mission: to organize, coordinate, and promote the fine arts in the Metro Detroit region.

The first official Detroit Adventure-sponsored event, in the spring of 1959, was "Conversations in the Arts," a six-week program of seminars; these talks were jointly sponsored by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library, and Wayne State University. Conversation topics included "Modern Art -- Perception and Emotion," "Literature as a Force in Our Society," and "Mass Media -- Tyrant or Teacher." The seminar series concluded with a conference entitled "Creativity: The City and the University" held at the McGregor Memorial Conference Center. Discussions and lectures were led by a wide range of local artists, academics, and professionals, and were open to the public.

With the success of these events, Detroit Adventure assumed its role as a cultural force in Southeast Michigan. By November of 1959 the group had 18 member institutions (including the Scarab Club, the Merrill-Palmer School, and the Detroit Symphony), but the administrative costs were paid by Wayne State University, which also provided office space, and selected and employed its director. In its first three years, Detroit Adventure was directed by William Birenbaum; under his leadership, the organization had a decidedly intellectual bent and a focus on classical and high art. The first Calendar of Cultural Events, a ten-page brochure, listed over 300 events for a three-month period: museum exhibits, theatrical productions, operas, scholarly lectures, and foreign films. In this calendar Detroit Adventure declared its intention "to demonstrate the qualitive opportunities of living in this city... to bring the tremendous cultural and educational assets the city possesses to the attention of more people, to strengthen cultural opportunities in Detroit, and to create new programs by pooling their thoughts and resources."

"Conversations in the Arts" and the concluding McGregor conference were an annual occurrence until 1964, but the organization's focus began to shift in 1961 when William Birenbaum was replaced as director by Hamilton Stillwell. Under Stillwell, the group had a less academic bent; seminars were largely replaced by festivals. The 1963 Detroit Adventure Spring Festival of the Arts took place over two weeks and consisted primarily of concerts and other performances, with only a minimum of lectures. The Calendar of Cultural Events grew larger and appeared more frequently: by 1965, the calendar was a monthly sixteen-page brochure with a ten-cent cover price. During Stillwell's tenure, Detroit Adventure organized an annual festival of poetry -- in 1967 and 1968, guest poets included Gwendolyn Brooks, John Ciardi, Denise Levertov, and Robert Bly.

When Hamilton Stillwell stepped down as director in 1970, Detroit Adventure had a membership of 28 organizations, including some as far from Detroit as the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. After Stillwell's departure, Detroit Adventure settled into the role it filled for the last ten years of its existence. The production of the monthly calendar was its primary objective; there was an annual arts festival, "Detroit Discovery"; occasional lectures and performances; and tours to cultural events in American and European cities. The focus on high art and classical art was relaxed: while opera and symphonic music still predominated in the events listings, a 1971 calendar advertised concerts by both Ray Charles and Frank Zappa.

In 1973, an administrative reorganization at Wayne State made Detroit Adventure a unit of the university's Division of University Relations, then led by Arthur L. Johnson. The paid staff of Detroit Adventure dwindled to two: an editor and a secretary, responsible only for the creation of the monthly calendar. In the absence of a Detroit Adventure staff, the work of planning events and coordinating festivals was left to the advisory board, composed of representatives of member organizations.

This announcement for the first Noel Night appeared in the Detroit Adventure calendar for December, 1973:

December 19 is Noel Night in the Cultural Center of Detroit. From 6 to 9 p.m. there will be open houses in many of the buildings in the area; there will be music, gay costumes and Christmas bells. This is the first time a holiday celebration has been held by the cultural center as a group project. All the organizations are entering into the plans to make it a memorable occasion. Christmas choralers, choirs from churches and schools, orchestral groups, costumed hostesses, and theatrical groups will be in and out of the buildings. Refreshments will be served. Workshops are planned for children at the Children's Museum and the Detroit Historical Museum.

Participating in Noel Night are: Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Community Music School, Detroit Public Library, Detroit Metropolitan Theatre Council, Department of Parks and Recreation, The Scarab Club, St. Paul's Cathedral, Society of Arts and Crafts, Smiley Brothers and UCAE-Rackham Building.

Join the crowd in the Cultural Center on December 19. No reservations required. No fee.

Noel Night was a great success and became an instant Detroit tradition; Detroit Adventure, however, continued to decline. The April 1980 calendar included a notice that no further issues would be published. By this time, although the group counted 36 organizations among its members, its paid staff had been reduced to an executive secretary and two assistants. The university was suffering greatly from cuts to state funding, and when Wayne State University finally eliminated the remaining budget for Detroit Adventure, Detroit Adventure ceased to exist.

The organizational duties of Noel Night were taken up by the University Cultural Center Association. The UCCA had formed in 1976, and served much the same coordinating function as Detroit Adventure originally had, but restricted its activities to the neighborhood that includes Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the main branch of the Detroit Public Library -- the three founding members of Detroit Adventure, and all active participants in the UCCA's events. The University Cultural Center Association has since been renamed Midtown Detroit, Inc., and now coordinates events such as the Art X Detroit and DLectricity arts festivals.

The Walter P. Reuther Library holds a collection of Detroit Adventure calendars, flyers, and event programs. The papers of University President Clarence Hilberry include correspondence regarding the founding and early years of Detroit Adventure. Please contact the University Archivist or the Reuther Library Reference Archivist to view these collections. The archives of Detroit Adventure are held by the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. Midtown Detroit, Inc.'s 2013 Noel Night will feature 70 participating locations; the festivities begin at 5 PM on Saturday, December 7.

Casey Westerman is the Wayne State University Archivist.