United Artists Theater
The UA in photos
United Artists History

During the 1920's movies became increasingly popular. To meet demand, theater owners built ever larger and more elaborate houses dedicated to their showing. By the late 1920's this style of building became known as the 'movie palace'. In Detroit these palaces became centered off of Grand Circus Park. This is the story of one such edifice.

In the 1920's the actors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin as well as director D.W. Griffith founded the United Artists nationwide chain of theaters. They decided to put their 17th theater in Detroit and hired the renowned theater architect C. Howard Crane to design it. It would be Crane's third theater for United Artists. He was also called to design the chain's theaters in Los Angeles and Chicago. The three theaters shared the same Spanish-Gothic decorative scheme.  In some cases the same molds were used. However, Detroit's United Artists would be unique. It was built on an irregular shaped site. The office building was a perfect rectangle, while the main portion of the theater had to be placed at a 50 degree angle to Bagley Street.

The L.A. United Artists
Inside the LA United Artists
The lobby of the Chicago United Artists

In those early years there was still some uncertainty whether or not theaters would be economically viable. Thus the project included an 18 story office block. The United Artists Building was a standard box shaped office structure. The lower five floors were made up an elaborate base of stone. A row of arches along the third floor gave the building a degree of elegance. Rising above this base were 13 floors of identical offices. The theater itself was set apart from the office block by a marquee covered in neon lights. There was also an eight story vertical marquee attached to the side of the building. At night it must have made for quite a sight. Yet the real treat lay inside Crane's new masterpiece.

The United Artists Building
A view of the marquee and vertical sign

The interior of the theater was treated in what was dubbed the Spanish-Gothic style. This was a unique combination of gothic vertical elements with tracery, thin lacework, Spanish styling, and great ceiling heights. As one entered the theater they would find themselves in a square shaped, two story high entrance lobby. On each wall were large mirrors framed by fantastic ornament.  Between these Crane placed huge Indian maidens  Their warm smiles welcoming patrons. Ascending a slopping floor patrons would pass into the main lobby. This room was made a perfect circle to help hide the fact that the auditorium sat at a 50 degree angle to the street. This room was capped by a shallow dome and a large chandelier.  Here one would find a grand staircase to the two upper balconies.  Continuing on further one would finally enter the auditorium. It sat 2070 people and, unique for the time, was built strictly for the showing of films. It continued the odd blend of Spanish-Gothic with Indian maidens. One could easily consider this to be one of Crane's best theaters.  It was acoustically perfect.

Light fixture

The United Artists Theater opened on February 3, 1928 with the film Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson. Detroit's newest film palace became an instant hit. It ran first run films and because of its small size (compared to the 5041 seat Fox) it was often used for reserve seating. It was one of two Detroit theaters to show Gone With the Wind when the film debuted in 1939, the other theater to show the film was the Wilson(now Music Hall). However, the UA was to reach its peak during the sixties. Such films as Tora Tora Tora, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music played to reserved seating. Sadly these glory years would be short-lived.

Auditorium Stage
Auditorium Left

By 1971 films had declined in popularity. With falling patronage from television, multiplexes, and a changing neighborhood the curtain closed forever.  In 1975 the theater's fixtures were sold at auction by DuMouchelle Galleries.  After this the empty theater would only have sporadic use.  Between the years of 1978 to 1984 it was used by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for recordings.  They had selected this auditorium because of its acoustics. In time this new life passed.

The office building would linger on. It had been remodeled during the early sixties. This included a totally redesigned lobby and exterior base. The beautiful arches were replaced with a face of dark marble, which offered no connection to the floors above. The modern design could not halt decline.  The large and small businesses that filled the UA began to leave for the suburbs. By 1984 the office building closed.

Detail of Indian: 1987
United Artists marquee: 1987

The building was not ready to give up the ghost. Some of the shops remained in use. In the early 90's the building was bought by an individual who was interested in bringing it back as lofts with nightclubs in the theater and storefronts. In 1991 a nightclub named the Currency Exchange opened in the ground floor portion formerly occupied by a bank. The old bank's vault was used as a club named, originally enough, the Vault. Yet these hopes of revival were soon dashed and after a few years the club closed. Now the real deterioration began. 

In 1997 the building was sold to Casino owner Don Barden.  He planned to review the property for possible redevelopment but he gave control to the facility to the city. The city then forced Barden to sell the building to the Ilitches for $1.5 million. There were some court battles as Barden tried to null the sale but they were for naught. The Ilitches also owned the abandoned Adams Theater but currently have no plans for either facility. Shortly after changing hands the building was stripped of much of its remaining plasterwork and scrap metal. Today the building continues to stand empty and faces probable destruction.

Detroit News and Free Press.
Burton Historical Collection
Theater Historical Society
Michigan History Magazine.
Copyright 1999 - 2004, David Kohrman
Last updated on March 19, 2004