• Photo Courtesy of Metra magazine. The dance floor of the Famous Door in 1981.

LGBT Detroit spring fundraiser revisits the Famous Door

Jason A. Michael
By | 2018-04-16T06:06:40-05:00 April 11th, 2018|Michigan, News|

DJ Melvin Hill to be honored

For their spring fundraiser April 21, LGBT Detroit will pay homage to the Famous Door, a nightclub popular with the African-American LGBT community in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
“We honor that space,” said LGBT Detroit Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb. “The Famous Door was a place where African-American gays and lesbians were the primary clientele. It was open at a time when a lot of gay bars were not open to African-American participants. So we just honor it this way.”
The Famous Door, which was located at 1256 Griswold downtown, was a straight bar until around 1972, when it was acquired by Ernie Backos. Backos had operated the Ten Eleven from 1952 until its closing in 1971. Soon, the club’s new ownership turned it into a hot spot for young, black gay folk who wanted to dance.
Melvin Hill was the DJ at the Famous Door from 1977 until it closed in 1998. Known today as a legend among house music DJs, Hill will be honored at the event.
“Melvin is an iconic disc jockey,” Lipscomb said. “He commanded a space. He was one of several DJs who really created a unique experience for Detroiters back then. So we’re pleased to honor him.”
Hill’s imprint made a mark on the DJ community, too.
“When you think of the Famous Door you think of Melvin Hill,” said DJ John Collins, who will be spinning at the fundraiser along with DJ Tone. “What was great about the Famous Door was that Melvin was able to really program great music and introduce a lot of music to the kids.”
For his part, Hill remembers people coming to the bar from near and far.
“It wasn’t just a Detroit thing,” Hill said. “A lot of guys came there from Chicago and New York, especially on weekends. Everybody was there for the dancing and the music. The young kids danced. They came there and changed clothes in the bathroom just to dance. They’d practice dancing before I ever came on spinning. It was a contest all night.”
Hill would begin his shift at 9 p.m. with a more adult sound. But, by 11 p.m., things would take a turn.
“After 11 it became the buildup and by the 1 o’clock hour it was the explosion,” said Hill. “There was an explosion … a lot of beats and drums. I played mostly vocals there. At least until 1 a.m. Then, it was climax time.”
Hill said he is thrilled that LGBT Detroit is revising “The Door,” as regulars called it.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s to teach the kids a little history on what happened in this city and how it got started. It’s important to not let the memory die.”
Hill said that today’s club scene is vastly different from when The Famous Door was at its peak.
“These kids today, what they’re experiencing now doesn’t compare. We came to dance. We didn’t wait until 12:30 to come in like they do now, and then they just walk around and don’t dance as much,” Hill said. “Every time you came out of the Famous Door you were soaking wet. It was about the dance.”
Lipscomb said that he urges the event’s attendees to stop and appreciate the huge change in the music scene.
“This night is to reflect on our past, present and future through music,” Lipscomb said. “It’s really about the music and about the dancing. We’re definitely going to have images what will conjure thoughts about the Famous Door. People have been kind to send us photographs, which we will showcase in our slide show.”
And, if all goes well, he predicts that turnout for the event will be high.
“The Spring fundraiser funds the programs we offer for free,” Lipscomb said. “We’d like everyone to be there. We’re expecting 400 people in the room.”
The Famous Door, LGBT Detroit’s Spring fundraiser, will take place on Saturday, April 21 from 8 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are $25 and are available from lgbtdetroit.org/events. Historian and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and LGBT Studies at Michigan State University Tim Retzloff contributed to this report.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.