Historic Detroit

United Artists Theatre

The United Artists Theatre was one of several in Detroit that helped define the term “movie palace.” It thrilled hundreds of thousands of Detroiters with its movies and interiors, wowed listeners as a recording studio for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — and developed a peculiar habit of crushing Oldsmobiles.

By the time legendary theater architect C. Howard Crane sat down to sketch out the UA on his drawing board, the United States was already enamored with motion pictures. In the 1920s, the area around Grand Circus Park was becoming lined with dazzling places to see shows, each theater trying to outdo its rivals in opulence and flair. The UA mainly competed with its nearby neighbors, the Michigan and the Crane-designed Fox, State and Capitol theaters. But there were many others nearby, such as the Oriental and Adams. The intricate designs and lavish interiors of these so-called movie palaces allowed common, working Detroiters to enjoy the splendors of the rich. The theaters became as much of a draw as the films themselves and were part of the show. And Detroit’s United Artists was no exception.

Working at the theater

Crane designed the theater and adjoining office building in the Spanish Gothic and Art Deco styles in 1927, though the office building opened Jan. 28, 1928, and the theater followed a few days later.

The 18-story, 200,000-square-foot office tower was built in case the theater became unprofitable and originally housed furriers, tailors, beauty salons, even travel agents. The Peoples’ State Bank occupied the corner at Bagley and Clifford Street. The price tag on the building was about $5 million (about $63 million today, when adjusted for inflation), and it was the third piece in an ambitious building program planned for Bagley Avenue and sponsored by the Stormfeltz-Loveley real estate company. The other two key pieces were the Michigan Theatre and the 22-story Detroit-Leland Hotel.

Before the Michigan Theatre rose in 1926, the eastern end of Bagley was “a wide, unkempt thoroughfare with nondescript buildings lining most of its length,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in January 1928. “The growth of business on that part of Bagley avenue that has been touched by the magic of enterprise — that has felt the guiding hands of this far-seeing group, these public-spirited citizens — is one of Detroit’s commercial marvels. … The average native Detroiter believes that it is quite natural for unusual things to be the usual in Detroit, but this great investment in such an undeveloped district made him wonder.”

The United Artists Building “is a fine building and a sightly building and a thoughtfully planned, beautifully executed, well arranged building” that was “designed to meet the exacting requirements of creative workers, as well as ordinary business requirements. … The building is supplied with every modern convenience … and apparently everything conceivable has been done for the comfort and well being of the tenant and to facilitate his business.” The UA would “become the magnificent home of many and diverse enterprises, including a great theater.”

Three of a kind

That theater was the building’s main attraction. The UA was the baby of Detroit’s movie palaces, as it was the smallest of the giants. The UA was built exclusively for films — a rarity at the time — and showed mostly United Artists films. The movie studio was founded in 1919 by actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith — four of the biggest names in showbiz at the top. Detroit’s UA was one of three that Howard designed in the Spanish Gothic style for the United Artists Theatre Circuit, and followed theaters in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Detroit theater was considered the sister of the Los Angeles location. Crane, who had done mostly classic theater designs up until this point, was asked to go with an exotic, Gothic style because Pickford loved the look of European castles, according to the Los Angeles Theatres Web site. Pickford and Fairbanks are said to have personally approved its design.

An eight-story, jaw-dropping blade marquee clung to the eastern side of the building spelling the name “United Artists” in 80 feet of multicolor bulbs. The marquee was 7.5 feet wide and featured a sunburst design at its base.

The 2,070-seat Detroit theater opened Feb. 3, 1928, with the showing of “Sadie Thompson.” At the show, the film’s star Gloria Swanson addressed the audience by telephone, pulling the switch by remote and opening the curtain on the theater’s 18-foot-by-22-foot screen for the first time. The temple-style theater’s price tag was about $1.2 million (about $15 million).

The UA featured a grand, circular lobby, complete with mirrors and huge Indian maidens on the walls that looked down on audiences. The United Artists’ auditorium was like a cathedral of cinema and said to be acoustically perfect, and was decorated with Gothic plaster and interesting brass light fixtures. For this UA theater, Crane had colored lights filtering down from perforations in the domed ceiling of the auditorium, allowing for the intricate details to be bathed in beautiful illumination. The theater featured “lacy conical fan vaults, an elaborate gilded dome, and great projecting canopies over proscenium and organ grilles,” historian Andrew Craig Morrison wrote in “Opera House, Nickel Show, and Palace.”

Patrons paid 35 cents for matinees and 65 cents for evening shows. Smokers were dinged an extra dime to sit in the loge level, which was decked out in silk draperies and tapestries and ornate plaster and light fixtures.

Even though the United Artists was built exclusively for films, this “Shrine to the Motion Picture” also had an orchestra led by Hugo Riesenfield that provided the soundtracks to silent movies during the early years. The theater also was built with a 3-Manual, 15-Rank Wurlitzer organ.

At many times, the United Artists featured reserved seating, such as when it held the Detroit premiere of “Gone With the Wind” in 1940 (it co-premiered at the Wilson Theatre, now Music Hall). Among the United Artists’ long run of other blockbuster premiers: “Hell’s Angels,” “Cleopatra,” “Snow White,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Pinocchio,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “South Pacific,” “Around the World in 80 Days” to name a few. The fact that it was smaller allowed for a more intimate experience than at the larger theaters. In fact, it was sometimes known as the “Jewelbox” of Detroit’s first-run theaters for this reason. In addition to premieres, the United Artists was the first theater in Detroit to install CinemaScope in 1953, and 70-milimeter in 1956.

In 1950, a $200,000 ($1.8 million today) remodeling job modernized the theater, placing a drop ceiling and large concession stand in the lobby and new projectors, screen and sound system in the auditorium. On the building’s exterior, some of its ornate details were covered over with dark marble, and the large 10-story marquee was replaced with a modern marquee that was still in place until 2005. In 1956, the UA became the first theater in the state to show films in the 70mm format with “Oklahoma!” The UA continued to be the city’s most prominent reserved-seating movie house during the ’60s.

On July 31, 1957, the Bagley Building Corp. sold the United Artists Building for $3.2 million (about $24 million today) to the Detroit Automobile Inter-Insurance Exchange at the Automobile Club of Michigan. The exchange bought the building to provide permanent office space for the exchange and the auto club. The two groups occupied about 65% of the building’s office space. The bank location on the corner of Clifford was occupied at this time by the National Bank of Detroit.

Porn, bargain hunting and falling bricks

By 1969, as the city bled residents and businesses following the 1967 race riot, the United Artists’ business had dropped dramatically. A roadshow production of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” opened Nov. 9, 1969, for a long holiday run but closed early because of poor attendance. Without the money or top first-run movies, the writing was on the wall. After the “Mr. Chips” disaster, the UA briefly closed for a week in January 1970 before reopening with porn flicks that same month. Among the steamy shows in the luxurious UA that month: “The Notorious Concubines” and “The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet.” The X-rated experiment was called off in February 1970, when the UA returned to more decent fare, such as “The Only Game in Town,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with Spencer Tracy.

But the theater was still struggling, and in March 1971, the UA returned to the nudie shows with an exclusive run of “Tuck Me In” and “Infrasexum.” In addition to porn, the UA doubled as a grindhouse, showing gore and horror films. But the project wouldn’t last long, and the theater closed Sept. 14, 1971, with the blaxploitation film “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” being its swan song. Even erotic films in an exotic theater couldn’t save the UA.

“The adult films typically grossed between $2,000 and $3,000 a week back then, still not enough to really make a profit,” theater historian Michael Hauser told HistoricDetroit.org, “The venue needed to gross a minimum of $2,500 a week just to break even. Plus, by this time, Detroit was over saturated with theatres playing adult fare. Downtown, besides the UA, you had the Gem, the National, the Roxy, the Summit (formerly Cass), the Bijou, and the Globe playing skin flicks.”

The UA gave it another go in December 1971, reopening Dec. 22, 1971, with a double feature of “She Freaks” and “Dr. Jeckyl and Sister Hyde.” It bombed, and the doors closed for good about a week later.

In 1974, the American Automobile Club moved to Dearborn, Mich., leaving the office tower and theater vacant, and helping to greatly accelerate the demise of the Grand Circus business district. With no one to watch over the building, it would start to fall into disrepair. At this point, the opulent complex was used mostly as a glorified warehouse. On Feb. 15, 1975, the Automobile Club, which still owned the United Artists Building, auctioned off all of the theater’s furnishings, fixtures, and artwork through the DuMochelle Art Galleries in downtown Detroit. The décor from the theater’s lobbies, hallways, lounges and stairways were sold off piecemeal. Cabinets, marble-topped tables, and statues of gods, nymphs and satyrs and hand-carved chairs and benches all went under the gavel before an estimated crowd of 400 bidders. Chairs and sofas went for $125 and up; some of the art pieces fetched $1,000 to $2,000 each. “When the last chair was auctioned off, many of the crowd trooped over to the old theater on Bagley, where a dozen chandeliers, including the ornate 15-foot high pair over the main body of the theater, were sold,” the Detroit News reported the next day.

The UA’s Wurlitzer was not part of the DuMochelle auction and was sold by sealed bid to Henry Hunt of Detroit, who operated the local Rodgers church organ dealership in Royal Oak at the time. Hunt bought the UA’s organ for his Pied Piper Pizza Peddler and Pipes restaurant that opened a few years later in the Universal Mall in Warren. The restaurant closed about 1983, and the organ wound up at the Long Center for the Performing arts in Lafayette, Ind., where it still is today.

The Redford Theatre, a lovely, intimate neighborhood theater in the atmospheric style that still shows old films, bought the UA’s Genarco carbon arc follow spotlight. The spotlight, bought independent of the auction, is still in the Redford booth and works like a charm.

Theater historian and organ performer John Lauter was in the UA in January 1975 and described to HistoricDetroit.org what he saw: “The walls in the public spaces of the theater had all been painted white, almost a whitewash job. The proscenium arch had been chewed open to accommodate wide-screen presentations. A steel framework had been erected to hang gold fiberglass curtains to frame the new wide, curved screen, giving a more ‘modern cinema look’ to the front of the auditorium. I guess the off-white wash paint was to obscure the ornamental detail. When I was there, everything was still in place from opening night; all of the light fixtures, lobby furniture, projection equipment, the organ, minus two brass ranks, was there and fantastically intact.”

Starting in 1979, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra used the acoustically perfect United Artists as a recording studio until 1983, when they said they couldn’t take the lack of heat, rain falling through the ceiling or lack of electricity in the building. The series of recordings for London Records, led by DSO conductor laureate Antal Dorati, included the music of Aaron Copeland, Bartok, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin and Stravinsky.

In February 1983, the United Artists joined the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Grand Circus Park Historic District. But as time has shown in Detroit, such a designation does not always bring protection. On Nov. 2, 1987, a shower of hundreds of bricks fell from the 13th floor of the UA’s tower onto Clifford between Bagley and Middle Street, crushing Detroiter Barbara Simons’ 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. “At first the police were telling me they couldn’t make an accident report because this was an act of God,” she told the Detroit News at the time. While no one was injured, it was at least the second time a car had been destroyed by bricks falling off the UA; Kevin Moloney of Detroit said his 1972 Cutlass Supreme was hit in the same spot in August 1984. Apparently, the United Artists Building had a thing against Oldsmobiles. The UA’s owner at the time, Whitney Management Co. of Montreal, said it would shore up the wayward bricks and continued to try to sell the crumbling landmark.

A brush with death

The UA hit the auction block in New York on Sept. 22, 1989, fetching a mere $460,000; it was expected to go for up to $1 million. The winning bidder was New York investor David Grossman bought the United Artists complex with the intent of restoring it and developing the office tower into lofts. He began restoring the lobby and turned the old National Bank of Detroit branch office into a club called the Vault. His plans were never fully realized.

On Oct. 27, 1995, Mayor Dennis Archer and Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch announced that they would jointly build a new baseball stadium on 25 acres on the west side of Grand Circus Park. It was to straddle Cass Avenue and knock out a significant number of buildings over the 13-block area, including the United Artists. In its place was to be the main entrance to the stadium. The ballpark was ultimately built on the east side of Woodward instead, taking out the old YMCA, Detroit College of Law, Hotel Wolverine and YWCA instead.

Businessman and cable television tycoon Don Barden secured a development option on the UA in the mid-1990s, and when that option expired Dec. 31, 1996, he bought the building for an undisclosed amount the following month. He was speculating on using either the building — or the site — for one of the city’s three casinos that had been approved by voters. At the time he bought the UA on Jan. 13, 1997, some in the casino industry said the property was too small and couldn’t be developed into a Las Vegas-style gaming hall.

Barden was soon approached by city officials who said they wanted the property for the baseball stadium project. Barden gave them an option to buy the property, and the city flipped that option to litch’s Olympia Development in mid-March. “I was left with the impression that it could not be used for a casino site, so that inspired me to assign my interest to the city,” Barden told the Free Press at the time, adding that he wanted to be cooperative. The amount of money Barden got for the UA was not made public. He later lost out on his bid to land one of the casino licenses.

A spokeswoman for Olympia Development told the Free Press in late March that the Ilitches planned to tear down either the theater, the building or both, and use the site for parking. Ilitch has bought many historic structures surrounding his Comerica Park and theater district and done just that.

Changing hands, unchanging condition

Today, the theater still stands, and Ilitch’s companies have not made public any plans to redevelop the property. Perhaps because he planned to have the building meet the wrecking ball, the UA was left to sit and rot, demolished by neglect and at times left wide open to trespass. The interior has been stripped of most of its decor and has been exposed to the elements. The Detroit City Council ordered the building to be demolished in 2001, but an Ilitch lawyer asked for a reprieve and said it would be refurbished. In May 2003, the building went back on the city’s hit list.

“Our history in the City of Detroit is one of restoration,” an Olympia spokesman told the Free Press in 2004. “However, it is not possible to save every building in the city because it’s not economically feasible for every structure.”

The buildings leveled by the Ilitch family include the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel, the Adams Theatre and Fine Arts Building, the Chin Tiki, the Hotel Vermont, the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of Noble Mythic Shrine and others. Ilitch has a fortune of about $1.5 billion and is in the top 250 wealthiest people in the country, according to Forbes magazine. His family owns or controls more than 160 properties in downtown Detroit.

Starting in the late 1990s, the building’s windows became a blank canvas for the region’s graffiti artists. Like the Lafayette Building before it fell to the wrecker’s ball in late 2009, hundreds of the UA’s windows were filled with artwork, including many inspired by Mayan hieroglyphics in gold, reds and blues. Riders on the Detroit People Mover got a close-up look at the art as the trains slowly wound around western Grand Circus Park. The Free Press even backed the illegal art project in an editorial in August 2004, writing the tags “show how enlivening art can spring from a blighted canvas” and that “even those who don’t like urban art would be hard pressed to argue that it makes the façade of a rotting building any worse.” The artwork graced the front cover of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s September-October 2005 issue of Preservation magazine. Free Press columnist Bill McGraw noted that December that “the United Artists tableau has caught the attention of artists and urban experts across the country because of its massive scale, originality and skilled execution.” Still, critics and many metro Detroiters deemed it nothing but vandalism.

In February 2005, the bottom of the 1950s theater marquee collapsed onto the sidewalk below. The city of Detroit placed multiple tickets and barricades. After a few months, the site was cleaned of the debris showing hidden detailing of the former exterior. In December 2005, with the Super Bowl fast approaching, the Ilitches cleaned up the building, possibly to avoid negative media attention. The UA’s rusty marquee was dismantled and the graffiti was removed from every window. The Free Press decried the scrub-down in an editorial that December as “a misguided attempt to clean up for the Super Bowl, as if the urban art is more offensive than the empty building” and added: “Out-of-towners would have found it fascinating, the kind of cool government planners can’t possibly manufacture.”

Kevin Joy was one of the main artists (“I am not a vandal,” he says) behind the Mayan art in the windows. “The idea came to me in a dream,” Joy told the Free Press in August 2006. “I saw a building covered in Mayan hieroglyphics.” As for the removal of his masterpieces, Joy said: “What’s more preposterous: a giant Mayan temple in Detroit or spending money to have it all removed and let it continue to sit empty?”

Since 2005, the UA also has received new doors and a new roof, and a yellow garbage chute for debris dangles from the top floor. Video surveillance cameras have been mounted near the building’s entrances, and a fence was erected around its perimeter in late 2006. The building is significantly cleaner and more secure, but is still vacant. However, such work has led to hope that the building could be saved.

The property had banners hung in January 2006, advertising a “premier development opportunity.” The property has been jointly marketed since with the sites of the Hotel Tuller and Statler Hotel by Olympia Development and the Downtown Development Authority.

But the theater continues to sit empty and decaying, just as it has for 37 of its 82 years, its crumbling ornate carvings and plaster betraying its original grandeur.