The United Artists Theater is one of Detroit’s grandest ruins. Located on the corner of Bagley and Clifford Streets, it was once part of Detroit’s thriving downtown theater district, which included the Michigan, Fox, State, and Madison, and Adams theaters.
United Artists was a film and television studio founded in 1919. In the early 1920’s, UA started buying and building theaters in major cities throughout the US to distribute their pictures through. The company built three theaters, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit.1
In January of 1927, United Artists announced that it would begin construction on a $3 million dollar theater and office building ($40.8 million dollars adjusted for inflation) located in downtown Detroit2. In the early 1920’s, Bagley Street was described as “broken-down side street.”3 The 2,000 seat theater, designed by C. Howard Crane, was part of a new development including the Michigan Theater next door and the Leland Hotel.
The construction of the theater came as motion pictures were eclipsing the popularity of live or stage shows, so from the start the UAT was built primarily to show films – though it still had an in-house orchestra for stage shows.4 Like other theaters, the UAT had a large office tower built onto it to provide revenue during off seasons. The office building fronted Bagley Street, with an entrance leading to the theater behind.5 Construction was delayed briefly when a sudden wind storm in July of 1927 caused the four-story skeleton of the building to collapse, with the workers escaping with just minutes to spare.6
On it’s opening night on February of 1928, Variety magazine declared the theater a masterpiece of construction. Though Spanish Gothic in design, there were architectural elements from many different schools: “Physically, the United Artists is beautiful. Its structural idea might be Persian, Grecian or Indian. Or it might be all combined, with several other international flavors added.”7
The UAT quickly became Detroit’s premiere first-run movie theater, even featuring reserving seating for some movies.8 In 1940, Gone With the Wind had it’s Detroit premiere at the theater. The office building, which included a branch of the Michigan National Bank, was sold in 1957 to the Detroit Automobile Inter-Insurance Exchange, later known as the AAA.9
Ove the years the theater underwent several renovations, most significantly in 1962 when the theater closed for three weeks for major work. The carpeting was replaced, seats were reupholstered, and a new gold stage curtain was installed. Part of the proscenium arch above the stage was removed to make way for a wider screen.10
By the late 1960’s however, first run movies were moving to modern theaters in the suburbs and people started staying away from downtown Detroit. Like other downtown theaters, the UAT began showing exploitation and pornographic films, and the theater began to deteriorate.11 In 1971, the theater closed,12 but briefly reopened in 1972 as the Downtown Theater in April. Films included “Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song” and “Black Jesus.”13
In 1974, AAA moved their offices from the United Artists building to the suburbs, but continued to use it for storage of records.14 15 To raise some money, AAA decided to auction off the furnishings of the theater in 1975.16 A crowd of over 400 bid on “cabinets and marble-topped tables; bronze dogs and Indians; marble statues of gods, nymphs, satyrs and nudes, and tables, chairs, benches, and sofas.”17
Several plans to reopen the theater came and went. In 1976, the UAT was leased by Jay Glover, who envisioned “a multimedia creative center… offering stage productions, concerts… a permanent recording studio… as well as a classic film series.”18 The Detroit Symphony Orchestra used the theater hall for recordings from 1978 to 1983, until the condition made it unusable.19 20
The office building closed ford good in 1984, and the entire structure was put up for sale.21 Vacancy did little to improve the condition of the building, which began shedding bricks from it’s façade. Several cars were crushed by falling bricks, most notably in 1987.22 In 1989 the theater sold for $460,000. The new owner converted the storefront bank into a club called “The Vault,” which closed a few years later.23 Another developer tried unsuccessfully to redevelop the office building into apartments, but the high cost of renovation made it difficult to find investors.24
During the 1990’s The Detroit Tigers baseball club began planning to build a new stadium downtown. Initial plans had the ballpark located on the west side of Woodward, which would have required the demolition of the United Artists Theater to make way for the entrance to the stadium.25 Eventually Comerica Park was built on the east side of Woodward, and in 1997, the UAT was bought by casino magnate Don Barden. Barden told The Detroit News that "We're reviewing the property to see if it can be developed for some kind of activity,"26 and envisioned converting the theater into a casino. The location proved to be too small, and later that year was sold again, this time to the Illitch family, owners of the Detroit Tigers.
Years of vacancy took their toll on the theater. The roof over the theater deteriorated, causing major water damage to the plaster ornamentation along the walls and ceiling. The marquee was removed in 2006 after part of it collapsed onto the sidewalk. Though the Illitches initially wanted to demolish the building, in 2006 they announced that the United Artists Theater was one of several properties in Grand Circus Park that would be redeveloped.27 Work began shortly after to stabilize the building, including replacing parts of the roof and cleaning up the debris inside.28 The UAT was one of several buildings being considered for purchase by Dan Gilbert in 2008, but was passed over.29 Since then work inside the theater and office building has continued, with no formal plans announced for its future.
The theater is still in poor condition today, but has been largely stabilized. Construction lights have been installed throughout the theater and office building, and plaster ornaments that fall from the walls or ceiling are bagged up and saved for possible reuse. The success of the Fox Theater and the revival of downtown Detroit makes the United Artists Theater a viable and unique candidate for redevelopment.