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Visitors to the Motown Historical Museum to celebrate its 50 years get a new view of Detroit

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Detroit Free Press (MCT) - The British couple peered into the antiquated little control room over Motown's old Studio A, marveling and momentarily speechless.

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By Brian McCollum
McClatchy Newspapers (
3/23/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

"So primitive," said the husband, finally finding his voice. "But so powerful."

While much of the world casts a cynical eye on Detroit's beleaguered auto biz and political scene, a bright spot remains on the Boulevard. As Motown Records' 50th-anniversary year rolls along, visitors continue to roll into the Motown Historical Museum, where officials say attendance is up about 18 percent compared with this point in 2008.

"The vibe here has been incredible," said Audley Smith, the nonprofit museum's chief operating officer. "We're seeing a spike across the board. It seems like every group we get is coming because of the attention for the 50th."

That includes a steady influx of out-of-towners for whom the name "Detroit" is still synonymous with good-time Motown vibes. Among them is Sheila Brown, operations manager for Buffalo, N.Y., radio station WUFO-AM, which brought a group of about 60 fans for a recent museum excursion. For these Motown aficionados, said Brown, the trip was a chance "to finally put a face to this house."

"For so many years, you see Motown on TV, with all these great artists, and the little house they came from," she said. "So our audience gravitated to the idea right away. We could have kept the buses coming."

This has been a particularly busy fortnight for the museum, housed in the label's old West Grand Boulevard headquarters: A Spanish TV team recently spent an afternoon filming a segment for a popular network show. Two weeks ago, 126 British soul-music devotees descended onto the grounds. A film crew arrived to work on a Florence Ballard documentary.

These visitors are spending money in Detroit _ Brown's group devoted several hours to local shops _ but perhaps most important, they're taking home glowing impressions of a city that needs them.

"When you read about Detroit beforehand, there's not a lot of encouragement," said Paul Reidy of Universal Music's Madrid office, who led the Spanish crew to Detroit. "But I have to say, when we were there, everybody looked after us fantastically. It was kind of humbling how nice people were to us, going out of their way to make us feel welcome. I travel a lot, and I've never had a reaction like that anywhere in the world."

Reidy and the crew were following Sergi Orduna, a young contestant on the Spanish dance competition "Fama," as he got a museum tour and hobnobbed with Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves _ his prize for crafting the winning routine during a recent Motown-themed episode.

The 7 ˝-minute Detroit segment aired March 12 and is posted at (search "fama and detroit").

The museum remains the area's most-sought tourist attraction behind the Henry Ford Museum, according to the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, based on the volume of info requests. Global media attention for Motown's year-long anniversary celebration, which launched in January, has kept the museum on the front burner of event planners such as the NCAA, which will stage basketball's Final Four here next month.

Smith expects the momentum to carry well into the summer, typically the museum's busiest season.

A couple of weeks ago, British accents filled the halls as visitors absorbed the sights, peppering their tour guides with questions about artists such as Marvin Gaye and the lesser-known musicians in the Funk Brothers. Like many visitors to the museum, Neil Jones, 45, was struck by just how small it all seemed up close.

"You see the pictures, so you get a sense of it," he said. "But being here really gives you a feel for the amount of energy that must have been packed into this building."

Jones is a Manchester, England, disc jockey who specializes in soul music. A Motown fan since childhood, he said a Detroit trip was long atop his life's to-do list.

"At whatever cost, I'd have done this at some point," he said. "You cut me in half, and there's Motown right in the middle. So this trip is an homage for me, without a doubt."


© 2009, Detroit Free Press.

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