With a name like the Fine Arts Theatre, you wouldn't expect a history filled with murders and the illegal drug trade.
This theater, designed by legendary Detroit theater architect C. Howard Crane, opened Feb. 15, 1914, as the Addison Theatre. However, on Nov. 14, 1915 -- less than two years later -- it was renamed the Fine Arts Theatre and switched from legitimate theater to a 582-seat movie theater. The movie house closed in 1972.
The building would see a number of owners over the ensuing decades -- but none of those would be as colorful as Joe Foster.
Foster bought the theater in 1978. The reputed drug dealer had amassed something of a downtown real estate empire. Foster started showing classic movies at the Fine Arts, but it closed in the 1980s when he lost the building over unpaid taxes. The last movies shown were "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Song of the South." However, Foster bought it back a few years later, and for the next decade or so, it would be used as a nightclub or for private parties.
In April 1997, Foster -- who was known by the street name DoDo -- was one of a dozen Detroiters indicted by the federal government on drug charges and food stamp fraud. The government said that more than a dozen of Foster's properties in Detroit could be forfeited to the government if it was proven that illegal activities occurred there. However, Foster was shot and killed Oct. 11, 1997, in front of one of his Brush Park apartment buildings, mere days before he was due back in court. A few weeks later, on Oct. 30, 1997, Uncle Sam launched a civil asset forfeiture case against many of Foster’s properties, though not the Fine Arts.
On Dec. 30, 1997, Foster’s girlfriend, Bernice Johnson, also was murdered. She was reputed to be involved in the drug trade with him, and also had her name on the titles of some of his properties, though not the Fine Arts.
The Fine Arts dodged being seized by the government. Detroiter Gwendolyn Washington took over after Foster's death, claiming that she had bought it from Foster before his death. However, the deed was not recorded, so she did not have legal ownership rights. Nevertheless, she hosted jazz and rap concerts and comedy shows, at least until the Detroit police raided the theater in May 1998, citing Washington for operating the theater without a license or necessary permits. Among the attention, the Foster family denied that Washington owned the building, and without legal title, she lost it. In July 1998, the Fosters sold the theater on a land contract to the T.G.R. Group, headed by George G. Rider Jr. and his then-girlfriend Valerie Atikian, among others.
Atikian ran the theater during the times when Rider was in prison. Among the events held at the Fine Arts during T.G.R.'s ownership included a Natalie Cole concert and an appearance by L.L. Cool J for Super Bowl XL in 2006.
But there was plenty more drama with the Fine Arts in the 2000s - and it wasn't on its screen.
Atikian was a co-owner of another company, Brava Entertainment Group, and in 2002 and 2003, Brava was said to have ponied up $500,000 for renovations on the Fine Arts. In 2003, Brava bought the theater from T.G.R. for $505,000, but Rider later alleged that the transaction wasn't meant to be a real sale and that Atikian duped him, according to testimony in a related lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court, the Detroit Free Press reported. This became important because after the sale, Rider tried taking out a mortgage on the theater for almost $400,000.
"Further complicating the sale deal was a repurchase option written in the contract that Rider purportedly didn’t know about until later," the Free Press reported Aug. 28, 2015. "The option ultimately allowed Atikian to buy 50 percent of the theater for just $1."
Meanwhile, Rider was sent back to federal prison from June 2004 to February 2007 for violating his parole. Amid that stint in the slammer, Brava filed a lawsuit for a clear title to the theater in January 2005.
On Sept. 22, 2007, Atikian, 44, was found dead, shot in the head in one of the Fine Arts' restrooms. Though Detroit police have not solved the case, Atikian had been scheduled to give a deposition in Wayne County Circuit Court a week later in the mortgage fraud case involving the Fine Arts. Atikian had reportedly told friends before her murder that she was afraid someone was trying to kill her and even went so far as to rent a car to hide her comings and goings.
“There were a lot of theories in regards to potential suspects, and she had some domestic issues — we looked into all of those angles,” Detroit Police Lt. Charles Clark told the Free Press in 2015. “None of them panned out enough for us to be able to charge anybody.”
The case over the mortgage fraud was settled in October 2008, with Brava Entertainment emerging as the owner of record, and with a clear title to boot.
Little has happened with the theater despite all this drama, with events hosted here and there. Brava redeemed the property from potential foreclosure for unpaid taxes in April 2015, and then listed the building for sale for $2 million that July. As of December 2022, the building remains for sale.