I know… I promised that Part 3 was going to be about finally getting into the house I grew up in on Sorrento Ave. in Detroit after trying for the last 46 years. But, as someone who’s conscious of her evolution and creative process every waking moment, this finally-going-home experience was BIG for me. Also, it’s not like I can go posting detailed photos of someone else’s stuff, which is inevitable if one is photographing a room. So this isn’t so much about documenting the actual house as it is about what I felt like being back in it.

I remember when I finally went to Disneyland for my 50th birthday, after I had only been there once when I was 14, I was shocked that everything was so small. The same thing, of course, happened when I walked into the house I lived in from 5 to 16 years old last week. It was like walking into a dollhouse. Like here’s me with the banister that in my head was a giant slide, down which I rode every morning en route to breakfast:

The house now is, of course, filled with other people’s stuff and taste, but it still had the same soulful vibe I was aware of even back then. Here’s the living room corner in 1961:

And here it is in 2011:

Thank God I finally got out of those heels and into more comfortable shoes.

My shoes were also very comfortable in this photo taken in my driveway around 1957. I remember testing my penny loafers on my pink and gray Columbia bike against other shoes I had for the firmest peddle grip.

Albeit slightly worse for wear, the driveway remains intact today.

This is the Magnolia tree that was the subject of one of my earliest songs, “I Fell Out Of The Magnolias”.

No one ever released it but it was one of those songs that impressed all of my singer and songwriter friends back in 1974 when I cowrote it with David Lasley (who I would later write “Lead Me On” with) and one of those songs that when I bump into any of them they still sing a little of. Forget about “September” or the Friends theme, “Magnolias” is the classic. Here I am back in the ‘Magnolia” days:

When I first  set eyes on the house I live in now in LA back in 1980, my realtor had heard about it at a dinner party the night before we went house hunting. I didn’t want to live in the Valley but after looking at and hating a bunch of square boxes in Hollywood I decided to drive over the hill and see the house described in the brochure as a miniature Hollywood Palladium. This was a day before it officially went on sale. There was a party going on in the backyard but the back gate was open so I just ran in and raced up the stairs into the house, with the owner chasing behind me. My realtor caught me just as I entered the living room but I remember turning my head and not only seeing a curved wall in the living room that reminded me of a curved wall in the living room on Sorrento but I was dying at the bathroom, just off the living room, because it was filled with gorgeously aged vintage maroon tile. Here’s the bathroom floor as it was that day:

I didn’t know what it was about the tile but looking at it made me dead certain this was MY home. So I almost died when I walked into the bathroom on Sorrento to see the exact same tile there. I had totally blocked it out of my memory but there it was with that deep almost orange hue that only hugs tile that old.

Another unbelievable thing is the people who live in the Sorrento house. First of all, it’s the same folks who bought the house from my father in 1965. Second, their last name is Broadnax, a name I’ve  only heard once before because it’s the name of one of the characters in my musical, The Color Purple, and one of the only characters’ names mentioned in song. As soon as I walked in, the Broadnax’s, both Reverends, told me that my mother, who passed away very suddenly when I was 16, was still in the house. They hear her walking down the steps, and growing up their kids often told them there was a white lady in the house. In my youth, I may not have believed this but when  my co-writers and I first started working on the musical, Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, told us that it was all she could do to keep her hand moving fast enough to scribble down the thoughts in her head she was certain her ancestors were dictating to her. The book was written in one quick draft. Alice told us her ancestors would be contacting us. I swear to God, there were times when I would just move my mouth and words or a melody would tumble out, as if someone else was dictating them. It happened to me, Brenda (Russell) and Stephen (Bray) throughout the four years we were writing the show. So I definitely believe that my mom could still be hanging around Sorrento. I hope she was home when I came over.

One last little bit of synchronicity, throw in that the person who sang the “Magnolias” song demo was the only old friend of mine cast in The Color Purple, Charlo Crossley, former Bette Midler Harlette and Church Lady Doris on Broadway. She’s been talking about that Magnolia tree for decades now.

Friday night, the Broadnax’s sat next to me at The Color Purple, where it was playing over the weekend at the Fox Theater.  I totally got a vibe that my mom was there.

It’s pretty overwhelming to be in spots where you have very specific memories and to see it through adult eyes. Especially for me, as I have so few photos and zero movie footage because all of it got tossed after my father remarried. Which I’m sure is why I so obsessively document now. I don’t ever want my past thrown away again. And now at least I can visit it more often.

So Monday, April 4, in Detroit starts off with meeting historic architecture preservationist Rebecca Binno Savage downtown in front of the Art Deco masterpiece Guardian Building. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland in the 1920’s for The Union Trust Company banking group, this 40 story skyscraper, towering over the city at the time, fell victim to the 1929 stock market crash before it even had a chance to open. Saved by the Union Guardian Trust Company it’s been a gem in the Detroit skyline ever since. If you’re an Art Deco freak, take sedation before you walk into this magnificently maintained edifice because your eyeballs have rarely been exposed to anything in this genre of this proportion.

Our tour guide was Christopher Roddy, he of eternally beckoning face made famous during this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials in what many people deemed to be the best, the Eminem Chrysler commercial.

Here are some of the more spectacular architectural details of The Guardian Building:

As a kid I thought it was very special that I was born in a state shaped like a mitten. I still do.

From there we drove to Hamtramck, the once Polish center of Detroit and home of the sausage I grew up with.

There’s also lots of vintage architecture and signage like this:

Nothing, however, outshines this folk art destination, fondly known as “Hamtramck Disneyland”, a giant hobby project built between 1992 and 1999 by retired GM worker Dmytro Szylak in his backyard and on the roof of two garages.

I would’ve preferred to gaze upon Disneyland without rain pouring down but the excellence of the assemblage couldn’t be dampened by a little spit from the sky.

Roofing shingles as sidewalk is another excellent touch.

I love when art inspires art. At least the owner of the house at the end of the block tried to go for it if not entirely successful:

This sign a few blocks away killed me:

The cakes are ‘fancy’, the meat is ‘quality’ but the bread is just ‘good’. BTW, the roofline is REALLY ‘good’.

Right down the block is Burke’s Igloo, famous now for being in the opening titles of HBO’s Hung.

The ice cream here is ‘fancy’ and ‘quality’, way better than ‘good’.

The signage is also excellent:

It’s 4:30. We drop Rebecca off and head over to the northwest side of Detroit where I grew up. I’m going to an alumni meeting at my alma mater, Mumford High School, to discuss plans for my upcoming benefit extravaganza with the marching band playing a medley of my greatest hits with the cast of my musical, The Color Purple, leading a sing-along. We have a little time to kill so we swing by the house I grew up in from 5 to 16 years old that’s just about a mile from Mumford.

Every trip I’ve made to Detroit since leaving there in 1965 I’ve tried to get into this house, with no sucess. My memories of it are great. I loved it because despite trying to fit in with the other traditional brick houses in the neighborhood it had a hit of Moderne, with a rounded exterior wall, glass blocks, Steelcase windows (now replaced) and a round pole supporting the second floor.

I would’ve ditched the drain pipe and left the original windows but otherwise everything was as it was when we left the house after my mom passed away suddenly, my dad remarried suddenly, and I was exiled to the suburbs. To my complete surprise and delight, this time we got in and I spent one of the greatest hours I’ve ever had reliving my past. More of that and Mumford tomorrow…

We – Mark Blackwell, my ready steady videographer and “Allee Marches On Detroit!” planning partner – landed back in LA at 1 AM Sunday night after taking two planes from Detroit, the second of which was over an hour late getting out of Chicago. My body feels like it’s broken into 12,000 pieces – at least it’s down by a thousand from yesterday – because of the pace we raced at over the prior 168 hours of giving speeches, conducting marching bands and Broadway musicals, visiting family, school friends and meeting a whole load of soulful folks on the street who take great pride in the city they live in. But it’s one of those great broken feelings where you know you had a once-in-a-lifetime experience and are so grateful for fate tossing that your way, no matter how much you feel like a convoy of Mack trucks have run over you, every single ounce of oomph exerted is worth the present inertia. I feel like I have to stew in a hot bath for a week and then be pickled in a jar of lavender oil for a couple of days to feel like everything in my body is glued back together again. But the Dee-troit spirit running through me is so high I could walk on air without legs. Which is good given that my knees performed way beyond the call of duty given their relatively recent medical fate.

Everyone knows I have a love affair with my hometown.

Not only do I still see it as the Soul capital of the world, I see it as the potential model city of the 21st century. The whole world is feeling the ever-closing grip of a failing economy. I think Detroit, already on its knees because of greedy politicians and the stubbornness of the automobile industry to see the future more than a decade ago, has the potential to rise from the ashes in glorious fashion should the powers that be decide to peer out of artistic eyeballs as opposed to ones that only focus on bottom lines. That was the subject of the speech I gave last Wednesday at the Rust Belt to Arts Belt conference held in Detroit, something I’ll publish in this blog in a few days. But for now, back to my never-ending support of the underdog, or in this case, the overcow.

That exceptional roof ornament is but one of many astounding vestiges of Detroit past I saw tooling around the city this past week. Given my proclivity for photographing anything I see that’s interesting, I came back with thousands of photos. I meant to post something every day I was there but my schedule was too overwhelming and I didn’t want to break the holy spirit that melted down on me every day to the point that I would come back to my hotel room feeling like a boom box had been inserted inside me and the bass was threatening to blow my skin off.

So starting tomorrow I’m just gonna start on last Monday, the 4th, my first day in Detroit, and take you through day by day… actually, not even. I gave myself one day, yesterday, to decompress without reminding myself that if I’m to get anything done after a week that exhausting/exhilarating I have to start integrating my every day work life back into my days or it will all become too overwhelming. So I’m just going to take you through chunk by chunk over the next couple of weeks and eventually we’ll make our way through Detroit…


My intentions were good. I was gonna wake up and spring back into action as I haven’t blogged regularly in over a week but my body still feels like it’s broken into 13 million pieces and I need a recuperation day from one of the greatest weeks in my life in Detroit that included giving a speech about the rejuvenation of the city, conducting my beloved Mumford high school marching band playing a medley of some of my greatest hits and, for the first time since my musical, The Color Purple, opened five years ago, conducting part of the show. My spirits are HIGH, like being powered by a hemi engine, but I need time to decompress, not to mention unpack my seven suitcases, go through the thousands of photos that were taken, begin transferring the close to 75 videotapes that were amassed, and somehow attempt to get back to my everyday life of music and mayhem in Los Angeles. So give me 24 and I hope to be back with something soon…


Here’s where I’ll be this coming weekend conducting the bows music to my musical, The Color Purple, and then on Saturday morning from 11-12:30 sharp conducting my high school marching band playing a medley of my greatest hits in the GORRRRRGEOUS lobby of the historic Fox Theatre with the cast of The Color Purple singing along.  I don’t read music (despite writing all we’re playing), and just imagine what the 60 piece Mumford marching band, 20 member pom pom squad, 25 member Color Purple cast, me and 250 attendees singing along will sound like in here… To kitsch!


My postings may be erratic this week as I’m shooting the whole week as a documentary.  I’m also the closing keynote speaker at the Rust Belt To Arts Belt conference about the rejuvenation of Detroit on Thursday. http://www.rustbelttoartistbelt.com/about/. I’m making numerous trips to my high school, going on a lot of tours of the kitschiest places in the city, seeing high school and grade school friends, attending three performances of  The Color Purple, and did I mention that my family planned my aunt’s memorial right smack dab in the middle of the day of my marching band performance and two performances of the show??!

Hopefully I’ll be posting little travelogues daily but no promises to what condition my brain will be in at the end of each day. Off to Detroit and we shall see!