Street musician: Security at Detroit Opera House pepper-sprayed me

Frank McCullers, 53, plays trumpet outside of the Opera House in downtown Detroit. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Frank McCullers, 53, plays trumpet outside of the Detroit Opera House in downtown Detroit. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Update at 1:10 p.m.: The Detroit Opera House responded to the allegations Monday afternoon. Their response is below.  

Frank McCullers has been playing trumpet on the sidewalk outside 0f the Detroit Opera House for a decade, becoming a popular fixture on Broadway Street.

Event-goers regularly stuff his tattered trumpet case with singles and fives, often pausing to admire the precision of his horn, a skill he sharpened over the past 50 years as a jazz musician. He began playing the trumpet at the age of 3 at the urging of his father, who performed with some of Motown’s greats.

But now the 53-year-old jazz musician said the Detroit Opera House wants him off the sidewalk. McCullers said he was on Broadway trying to talk to security about his right to play there when one of the guards told him to take off about two weeks ago.

“I was on a public street, and he told me to leave,” McCullers told me Sunday afternoon. “I told him I had a right to be on the public street. When I told him I didn’t want to leave until I talked to the head of security, he pulled out a can of pepper spray and just started spraying me. I wasn’t threatening him or walking onto their property.”

Witnesses said they saw McCullers in pain and being treated for pepper spray but didn’t witness the alleged assault.

“I’m not hurting anyone by playing on a sidewalk,” McCullers said. “People look forward to hearing me. They know me, you know? This is what I’ve been doing for 10 years.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether surveillance video captured the incident.

Jillian Zylinski, communications coordinator for the Opera House, sent this response Monday afternoon:

1) We have allowed Frank, along with a number of street musicians, to perform in front of the Detroit Opera House and on our private property for years. We truly support them, and love the feeling and atmosphere they can bring. We have also allowed Frank to stay warm in the parking garage lobby over the years.

2) During the run of “Wicked,” we had more than 80,000 patrons visit DOH. The safety and security of our patrons is top priority for DOH.

3) Along with Frank, there is another street musician who plays the saxophone. Two weeks ago the two musicians got into a physical altercation with each other, where they beat each other with their instruments. Detroit Police and EMS were called. Frank called three news outlets to report the incident telling them one of “our musicians” assaulted him. We had to physically separate the two, and keep the area clear to protect our patrons.
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When Frank called the press about the assault, he led the press to believe that the fight was with one of our orchestra musicians, not the other street musician. The fight was between the two street musicians fighting over “territory” they wanted (playing spots).

4) We asked both musicians to stay further separated and remain off our private property until things calm down between the two of them. DPD also instructed them to remain away from the facility completely.

5) Frank came back again a few days later. Again, he was yelling across the street to the other musician. Our security officer asked him to leave the property, as he was on our private property. He refused. He was asked to remove himself from our private property he was on again. He again refused. We told him he did not have to leave the area, but to remove himself from DOH property. Frank was then very upset that he was being told not to be on what he has come to call “his territory”. Frank began to push, and swing his instrument to attack the security officer, in the same manner he had with the musician the previous night. This is when the officer did pepper spray Frank for his safety and for the safety of those around him. Frank then left the area.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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