With all abuzz about the Eminem/Chrysler Superbowl ad, “Imported from Detroit,” you might have noticed it was filmed partially at the Fox Theatre. Just last month, Untapped revealed some interesting history behind the refurbishment of the theater, which we will reproduce below.
The Fox Theatre was financed by film producer William Fox in 1928 and designed by Charles Howard Crane.The original interior featured a six-floor lobby, a tri-level auditorium in homage to an Arabian tent, a massive elephant head, and was ornamented in “black marble, red leather, aluminum gilt, and 300,000 crystal jewels.”  The building itself was a total of ten floors, with office space on the upper levels. It was a theater of many innovations: an extensive sound system, an orchestra pit that could be raised and lowered via pneumatic pumps, and the first in the world to have built-in equipment for talking movies.  In the 1940s, the Fox diversified its programming by booking live acts, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Jack Benny. In the 1950s, the stage was graced by Elvis and various Motown stars. The Fox was one of the few theaters still operational in 1970, but the content of its films had shifted. The 1970 publication of Detroit: A Young Guide to the City described the films shown as those that “usually deal[t] with race or sadism.”  At the time of its refurbishment in 1988, it was the largest remaining movie house in the world. Newsweek reported that “after an $8 million facelift, the 5,100-seat Fox Theatre reopened as a bejeweled grand dame, sparking civic optimism for revitalizing Detroit’s once-elegant Woodward Avenue.”
News articles tend to gloss over the ownership of the Fox Theatre. The Detroit News simply stated that the theater “changed hands several times”  before it was purchased by Mike Ilitch. This is despite the fact that prominent Detroit businessman Chuck Forbes, who owned and successfully renovated the Gem and Palms theaters, had ownership prior to the Ilitches. Daniel Duggan of Crain’s Detroit Business responded to my e-mail inquiry regarding ownership of the Fox prior to Forbes, “Sorry, nobody here knows.”  The sale of the Fox to the Ilitches was brokered by the city of Detroit, and Forbes filed a lawsuit in 1994 against city officials and Mike Ilitch, “claiming the city reneged on an agreement to sell him other downtown real estate in exchange for selling his building to Ilitch. He also said he was threatened that some of his properties would be condemned if he didn’t sell [the Fox].”  Forbes eventually dropped Ilitch’s name from the lawsuit and the city settled with Forbes, giving him land and parking in the Grand Circus area. One of the key defendants, Emmet Morton, left his position in city government after the deal went through to become an employee of the Ilitches. Forbes also physically relocated some of his other properties, including the Gem Theatre and a few accompanying buildings when they became threatened by demolition in the construction of Comerica baseball park in 1997. Comerica Park is home of the Detroit Tigers, owned incidentally by the Ilitches. Fortunately, the story of the Fox Theater ends well. The Ilitches and the city recognized its economic potential, due to a proximity to Comerica Park, and $12.5 million was spent in renovations. The theater is currently utilized as one of the main performance venues in Detroit.
For more interesting stories on the private developer involvement in decaying Detroit public infrastructure, check out the amazing interior photographs from the United Artists Theater and Michigan Central Station, by Untapped photographer Ryan Southen.