Historic Detroit

Adams Theatre

Nestled among the hotels and office buildings dominating the west side of Grand Circus Park was an unusual theater designed by a master, built by a Detroit movie tycoon and torn down by a pizza maker.

The Adams Theatre was a 1,770-seat theater designed by famed architect C. Howard Crane as a playhouse for John Kunsky’s chain of entertainment venues. It opened Sept. 1, 1917, with a stage performance called “Romance.” Within a year, however, the Adams was converted into a movie theater and would spend almost its entire life as a major movie house. The alley-jumper One of the things that made the Adams so different was how its lobby was separated from the theater’s auditorium. The Adams was a so-called alley-jumper, with its entrance in the Fine Arts Building on Grand Circus Park. The Fine Arts, built in 1905 and designed by Louis Kamper, was well-established by the time the Adams opened 12 years later. The theater itself was on Elizabeth, across from the State Theatre (now known as the Fillmore Detroit). Patrons would enter the lobby through the Fine Arts and buy their tickets and concessions. Balcony patrons would then go up some stairs and cross an enclosed sky bridge over an alley into the auditorium, while main floor guests would go down steps and through a tunnel underneath the alley.

Grand Circus Park was a desirable and high-priced piece of real estate at the time, so by having a narrow, small entrance on the park and the large theater on a side street, Kunksy got the prestigious address without the high cost. It was one of only three known alley-jumpers in the city.

Such a clever business move was nothing uncommon for Kunsky, a Detroiter who made himself a fortune in the vaudeville, movie theater and nickelodeon business — and was the man who first brought movies to Detroit on a regular basis, at his Casino Theatre. He also was responsible for many of Detroit’s most successful theaters, as well as the city’s first major movie palace, the 1,000-seat Columbia.

Kunsky’s empire

The Columbia, which opened at 50 Monroe St., on Oct. 2, 1911, was the first of architect Crane’s many stunning movie palaces. Crane did nearly 60 movie theaters around Detroit and other landmarks. Among Crane’s creations: The Fox, Majestic, State (Fillmore Detroit) and United Artists theaters, the Lafayette Building and Olympia Stadium.

While the name Kunsky might not be familiar to current Detroiters, he is responsible for the Birmingham, Fisher, Madison, Michigan, Oriental, Redford, Royal Oak (Music) and State theaters, as well as the Capitol Theatre, now known as the Detroit Opera House. Kunsky had so many theaters on Grand Circus Park, in fact, that the area was dubbed “Kunsky Circle” at one point in the 1920s.

Starting in the mid-1910s and picking up in the early 1920s, Detroit’s entertainment mecca moved north from Monroe Street — where the Columbia, National and Gayety theaters and Old Detroit Opera House were — to Grand Circus Park. Between 1917 and 1928, Grand Circus Park saw the addition of 24,000 seats with the openings of the Adams, Capitol, Fox, Madison, Michigan, Oriental, State and United Artists theaters. The 1,700-seat Adams — when compared with the behemoths like the 5,041-seat Fox and 4,038-seat Michigan — was rather small, but the switch in 1918 from vaudeville to silent films proved to be a successful one. The Adams also was designed in a far more simple, classical decoration than the movie palaces that would come a decade later. In 1927, the Adams entered the era of the talkies, installing the Vitaphone sound film process. Vitaphone was used on almost 2,000 films from 1926 to 1930 that were produced by Warner Bros. and its sister studio, First National. Among the most successful Vitaphone films was 1927's "The Jazz Singer." Unlike modern movies, the soundtrack was not on the film itself, but supplied by a 16-inch phonograph record.

Fred Bear and the Adams

Hunting legend Fred Bear, who spread the popularity of archery and bow hunting, said his visit to the Adams in 1927 to watch a silent movie called "Alaskan Adventures" planted the seed for his career. The movie features California bow hunter Art Young, who captivated a young Bear and led him to start carving his own bows and arrow shafts in the basement of his home on Tireman Avenue in Detroit.

The ever-changing Adams

In 1931, Kunsky lost everything when his disinvestment in the theaters was forced. He sold his theaters for about $6 million, the Adams wound up in the 1930s under the Chicago-based chain H&E Balaban Corp., controlled by Barney Balaban, a future president of Paramount Pictures. His brothers Harry and Elmer Balaban managed the Adams for decades under the Adams Amusement Co, spending $60,000 to remodel the theater in March and April 1935 (about $900,000 today when adjusted for inflation). The modernization and redecoration was done in the Art Moderne style and was overseen by architects Pereira, Senseney and Pereira, who redid about 30 theaters for various chains across the country at the time. The alterations changed the front, lobby and interior of the auditorium, though many of the vestiges of the original design were kept. The theater also got a new name, the Greater Adams Theatre, though the name would not stick for long.

In 1947, C. Howard Crane and Associates Inc. oversaw another renovation, adding a new box office made of corrugated aluminum "with novel built-in semi-circular flower box and concealed lighting fixture," news reports said. The outer lobby's floor was replaced with red terrazzo, and the doors to the inner lobby were made of clear herculite glass. In 1953, Balaban introduced another major change, installing CinemaScope, a revolutionary optical process that compressed the image on the film with a special lens. This widened the image out, almost doubling the width of the picture on the screen, a fore-runner of the widescreen technology used today. This was a huge deal at the time, and theaters took out large newspaper ads boasting that they had made the switch. The theater also was hip to the 3D fad, showing movies like "Kiss Me Kate."

The Adams was sold on June 1, 1963, to a group of Detroit movie house executives that included the Community Theatres, Suburban Detroit Theatres, and Wisper and Wetsman Theaters. Managing the Adams were Irving and Adolph Goldberg, twin brothers and investment brokers, who had the theater remodeled yet again that December. The movie group would spend $100,000 (about $670,000 today) to spruce up the 46-year-old theater. The interior was completely changed, with new lighting fixtures, carpeting, seats, and blue and gold drapery, as well as a new, 15 percent larger screen. About 200 seats were ripped out to provide more legroom and wider aisles. This left the Adams with a seating capacity of 1,450. A 14-foot-tall marquee with 1,500 bulbs also was installed above the entrance with a two-story revolving tower proclaiming "ADAMS." The theater closed after the last showing on Dec. 18, 1963, and reopened Christmas Day with "The Prize" starring Paul Newman.

The Detroit Free Press reported Dec. 15, 1963, on the changes that "the new owners of the Adams Theater are putting down a bet of $100,000-plus on the entertainment future of Downtown Detroit." But with the rise of the suburbs and decline of the city during this time, the odds were stacked against the new owners. As the Adams started to lose customers, it switched to showing almost exclusively horror and action movies in the 1970s and ‘80s in an attempt to secure a niche market.

In 1988, owner Hugo Higbie, president of the Grosse Pointe Farms real estate firm Higbie Maxon Inc., put the Adams through a drastic final renovation that divided the auditorium into three screens. The balcony was walled off and split into two theaters. Bright, 1980s colors were applied in an attempt to help rejuvenate the downtown theater district. But the Adams more or less died in a hail of bullets.

The last picture shows

The Adams was packed the night of Oct. 7, 1988, for the opening night of "Tougher Than Leather," starring hip-hop legends Run DMC. At 12:04 a.m., 20-year-old Melvin Johnson was shot in the back inside the theater and died about half an hour later at Detroit Receiving Hospital at 12:38 a.m. The Adams was not alone in violence breaking out during the movie. Another man was shot and wounded outside a Southfield theater; shots were fired outside a Dearborn cinema; a youth was beaten with a baseball bat at Eastland Mall. The Adams canceled its planned two-week run of the movie, and was one of five Detroit-area theaters to pull the movie.

A little more than a month later, guns would blaze at the Adams once again. On Nov. 12, 1988, during a showing of "Child's Play," two Detroit teenagers were seriously wounded during intermission in a shoot-out spurred by an argument over a girl. Michael Johnson, 17, was hit three times; his 18-year-old cousin, Dozshon Johnson, was shot twice. Sixteen-year-old Beronnie Davis of Detroit was charged as an adult with two counts of assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm during a felony. It is unclear whether he was convicted or sent through juvenile court. Police learned about his involvement from him talking about it at school.

The story, according to police: Davis was with a group of friends. One of the Johnsons had teased a girlfriend of the shooting suspect. A fistfight erupted in the aisle, but the Johnsons got the upper hand. Security guard Willie Evans, 21, told police he was trying to break the fight up when the house lights went down for the start of the movie's second half. When Evans went to call police because the situation had escalated, Davis brandished a .32-caliber revolver and went after the Johnsons. He fired six bullets; he hit the cousins with five of them.

The Adams reopened two days later, but closed for good on Nov. 16. The final movies advertised on its marquee: "Halloween 4 " and the appropriately titled "Messenger of Death."

The shooting also came three days before the Fox Theatre was to reopen following a $7 million renovation. "The Adams and Fox are two totally different realms," Brendy Barr, public relations director for the Fox's parent company, told the Detroit News in November 1988. "We just hope that" the Adams shootings "won't influence people not to come to the Fox. "Hopefully" the closing of the theater "will make people feel better."

Added Michael Van Beek, the operator of the On Stage restaurant in the Fine Arts Building: "We're relieved and somewhat pleased that they're closed. It's sad for any business to close under those circumstances, but it has been a sore spot for us."

Talk of saving the silver screen

On May 3, 1991, the Free Press reported that "a group of investors is hoping to launch an Apollo Theater in Detroit — patterned after New York's historic Apollo — downtown at the city-owned Ford Auditorium or the defunct Adams Theatre." The plan was to audition and televise amateur acts and launch a national talent search. The plan never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, volunteers from Preservation Wayne cleaned up the Adams — then abandoned for four years — so it could be included on the group's historic theater tour. "The reward that made al the work worthwhile for these theater buffs was the discovery of countless memorabilia from the glory days of the Adams tucked away in the scores of cubbyholes of this complex building," Preservation Wayne said in a news release at the time. "An early set of lobby doors was discovered high above the stage, as well as a doorman's greatcoat and ushers' uniforms with the Adams insignia." The items were put on display in the Adams for the tour.

Preservation Wayne's then-executive director, William Colburn, noted that the theater was left exactly as it was when the Higbies closed the theater four years earlier: "Did you know that nacho chips do not decompose?" he quipped to Marquee magazine in 1992. He added that he hoped the volunteers' cleanup would help the theater's prospects of being redeveloped.

Real estate tycoon, sports team owner and pizza mogul Mike Ilitch bought the closed Adams from the Higbie family and adjoining Fine Arts Building in 1992. Around this time, he started buying up everything and anything near the Fox in anticipation of building a new ballpark for his Detroit Tigers near his Foxtown empire. As early as May 1994, Atanas Ilitch said the family was working on a plan to revive the Adams.

Tigers spokesman Tom Shields told the Free Press in November 1995 that Ilitch would renovate the Adams and the Grand Army of the Republic Building. "The Ilitches plan to fully develop their properties" near the stadium, Shields told the paper. "They certainly hope everybody else does the same.” The developments of those structures, as well as the Ilitch-owned United Artists Theatre, the Chin Tiki, the Detroit Life Building, Moose Lodge, Fine Arts Building and three other structures in the area, have never happened.

Taxpayers pay to raze the Adams

The Adams continued to fall into a state of unsalvageable disrepair. Its roof over the stage had failed, leaving gaping holes for years that allowed the elements to destroy much of the auditorium. What the weather didn't ruin, scrappers and vandals did. The theater's rusted marquee on Grand Circus Park was removed in 1999. By 2006, the Fine Arts and Adams were boarded up and written off as a lost cause, the renovation by Ilitch a forgotten promise.

In April 2009, Detroit hosted the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four at nearby Ford Field. Ilitch, a man worth an estimated $1.6 billion in 2008 by Forbes Magazine, had the city's Downtown Development Authority give him $2.5 million in state-funded grants to tear down six of his rundown buildings: the Chin Tiki, the Elizabeth Street Lofts, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the 135 Elizabeth parking garage — and the Adams and Fine Arts Building. The $2.5 million was money left over from funding for cleaning up the city ahead of the 2006 Super Bowl that was hosted at Ford Field.

DDA board member Ted Gatzaros voted against giving Ilitch taxpayer money for the demolitions, telling Crain's Detroit Business that "we need to prioritize where we apply money." But the allocation was approved anyway, and some of the cleared sites were then turned into surface parking lots where people paid $20 and up.

The Adams started coming down on May 28, 2009, as an excavator tore into the back of the theater on the Grand Circus Park side. Work went fast, as two days later, a huge chunk was taken out of the theater's roof and by May 31, about half the Adams was gone. It would be completely gone by the end of June. Seats, the projector, popcorn machines and other relics from the Adams' past were gobbled up by wrecking equipment and tossed into Dumpsters. Demolition of the Fine Arts began once the Adams was removed from the landscape.

Fortunately, Ilitch's Olympia Development picked up an estimated $500,000 stabilization of the Fine Arts Building's façade. Unfortunately, Olympia has said it had no plans before demolition — and no plans for the façade afterward either. Atanas Ilitch, now president of Olympia Development, said in a statement: "We are confident that the façade of the historic Fine Arts Building can be preserved and ultimately integrated into a new development that will occupy the site at some point in the future."

If development does happen, a little piece of the Adams will live on; others fear that the façade will either collapse accidentally or the Ilitches will give up and have it razed like the rest of the buildings.