Letter from the Editor: Stage Right

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R.J. King
R.J. King

In recent years, downtown Detroit has seen its share of theater restorations, starting with Mike and Marian Ilitch’s acquisition of the Fox Theatre in 1987 and followed by more recent renovations of the State (Fillmore), Gem, Century, Garden, and City theaters, along with Orchestra Hall and Music Hall.

The most remarkable restoration of the lot was the Capitol Theatre, which reopened in 1996 as the Detroit Opera. Through the vision and persistence of David DiChiera, who founded the Michigan Opera Theatre, along with the late Frank Stella, the longtime MOT chairman, millions of dollars were raised and Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was brought in for several benefit concerts (at times he appeared here with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras as The Three Tenors).

Now comes the potential for three more theater restorations in the downtown core, including the United Artists, National, and Michigan theaters. Although the latter venue was largely destroyed to make way for an interior parking deck for the Michigan Building, DiChiera says it could be redone with $2 million worth of plaster work and several million dollars more for backstage operations, seats, a main lobby, and bathrooms.

The National Theatre, meanwhile, has sat empty for years along Monroe Street, just east of Campus Martius Park. Built in 1911, it’s the oldest theater in Detroit, and is the only one still in existence that was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn.

Acquired by Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., the future use of the 800-seat venue is still to be determined. Exposed to the elements, the exterior structure and the ornate terra cotta façade — once outfitted with hundreds of electric lights to highlight the architectural features, including scores of colored Pewabic tiles — is in decent shape, but the interior needs a complete makeover.

Meanwhile, the United Artists Theatre Building, which is owned by Ilitch Holdings Inc., is ripe for a restoration. Built in 1928 along Bagley Street, the 18-story structure was designed by C. Howard Crane in a Spanish-Gothic motif and included more than 200,000 square feet of office space and an adjoining 2,070-seat theater.

In May, Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, announced a deal to renovate the United Artists into 148 apartments (three other neighboring buildings will get similar treatment). For the renovation of the United Artists, Ilitch selected Bagley Development Group in Detroit; the principals include Emmett Moten Jr., who previously served as director of Detroit’s community and economic development department. Moten also worked for Ilitch’s Olympia Development, and played an integral role in renovating the long-vacant Pick Fort Shelby Hotel along Lafayette Boulevard into a DoubleTree Suites by Hilton
Hotel, along with 56 apartments and numerous amenities.

Moten says Bagley Development Group will begin work on the apartments later this year, with occupancy likely set for 2019. As for the United Artists Theatre, he has yet to determine a future use for the venue.

Like the future restoration of the National and Michigan theaters, the trick to restoring the United Artists Theatre will be establishing a sound business plan, raising capital to restore the venue, and hiring a top-notch entertainment operator to book plays, concerts, performances, conferences, and other events.

So how to move forward? All three theater owners should consult with the recently retired DiChiera, who isn’t quite ready to exit stage right.

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com at the end

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