United Artists Theatre – Detroit, MI

An expanded version of this post on the United Artists Theatre in Detroit, MI is in my new book “After the Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters.” For more information visit: http://www.afterthefinalcurtainbook.com

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

Designed by famed theater architect C. Howard Crane, the United Artists Theatre in Detroit, Michigan opened on February 3, 1928. It cost $5 million ($77.8 million when adjusted for inflation) to build the 2,070-seat theater and 18-story office building. Crane was hired by the founders of United Artist PicturesD.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin — to design the theater based on castles that Pickford and Fairbanks saw while on honeymoon in Spain. The theater’s Spanish Gothic interior was very similar in design to the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, California, which was also designed by Crane and had opened a little over a month earlier. An opening day advertisement in the Detroit Free Press called the theater “Old World Luxury combined with New World Comfort.” The feature presentation on opening day was “Sadie Thompson” a silent film starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. Swanson made an “appearance” via phone and spoke to the audience about the film. The United Artists was designed for feature films, though it did feature the occasional live show, and had a house orchestra as well as a Wurlitzer Opus 1824 theater organ.

The fire curtain can be seen in this close up of the proscenium arch.

The theater was closed for modernization in 1950; new projectors, a new screen and a sound system were installed in the auditorium, and a snack bar was installed in the lobby.  In January 1970, the United Artists switched to showing X-rated films. The first X-rated film shown was “Camille 2000”, an Italian movie starring Danièle Gaubert. The format change only lasted around three months and the theater returned to showing regular films on March 25, 1970. The United Artists changed formats a few times before closing on September 14, 1971 after a showing of “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” starring Melvin Van Peebles. It reopened a few times over the next year — once as the Downtown Theatre —but closed for good in August 1972.

Decorative plasterwork covering one of the organ chambers.

Artifacts from the theater were auctioned off through DuMochelle Galleries on February 15, 1975; auctioned items included the lobby furniture, chandeliers, fountains, seats, and marble statues. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra began to use the theater as a recording studio in April 1978, but was forced to stop in 1983 due to the deterioration of the building. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year. A number of plans, including demolishing the building to build a baseball stadium, were proposed over the years, but none came to fruition.

View of the auditorium from the stage area.

In May 2017, it was announced that the office portion of the building would be turned into 148 residential units with retail on the first floor. The developer intends to demolish the theater because according to Gershman Mortgage, who is providing $34.5 million for the project, a dilapidated theater or a restored one put the financing in jeopardy. Adam Hendin, a vice president at Gershman is quoted as saying “the theater building is dilapidated and not an attractive building to live next to” and “If the theater building gets renovated and becomes operational again, Gershman has concerns that this adjoining commercial, public use would disrupt the residential tenants and therefore make the project less attractive and less marketable as a going concern.”

Much of the first floor, as well as the stairs were covered in a thick layer of ice.

View of the auditorium from the side of the balcony.

A close up of some of the decorative plasterwork in the auditorium dome.

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One thought on “United Artists Theatre – Detroit, MI

  1. Pingback: Digital Theater Reconstructions | After the Final Curtain

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