20 Witherell Street,
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When the Madison opened in 1917, its $500,000 cost was one of the heftiest yet for a theater in downtown Detroit. Built for the Kunsky circuit by C. Howard Crane in an elegant, understated Neo-classical style, it could seat over 1800 and was then the largest of the theaters in Detroit’s former theater district, Grand Circus Park.
As with many theaters of the 1910s and 1920s, it was built along with an office tower, in case moving pictures were ‘just a passing fad’ and no longer profitable.
The Madison was surrounded by a five story office building with a facade covered in Terra cotta decoration in a classical motif. Other than a small, relatively simple marquee (removed in the 60s in favor of a larger and tackier one), the Madison could pass for a typical office block.
The top floor of the Madison Building housed the Kunksy circuit’s main offices when it first opened.
The Madison also enjoyed immediate success, opening with the film ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’. Its features included gilded plasterwork in the auditorium and lobby spaces, including a frieze of maidens over the stage’s proscenium arch and a tiered orchestra pit.
By the late 20s and early 30s, several larger and far more ornate palaces had joined the Madison on Grand Circus Park, such as the Capitol (just across the street), the State, the Fox and the United Artists, but the Madison continued to remain a popular venue for many more years.
In the 40s, Kunsky sold the Madison to United Detroit Theaters, which had the theater drastically remodeled in 1961, destroying the original neo-classical facade with a drab 60s one. Fortunately, the interior was left mostly intact.
It was Detroit’s first theater to screen a film in 3D, ‘Bwana Devil’, in 1952.
In 1960, the theater switched over to 70mm film, with ‘Spartacus’, which had a long run, but nowhere near as long as the almost two-year run of ‘The Sound of Music’ beginning in 1965.
By the late 70s and early 80s, the Madison had begun to decline, and in addition to horror and action films, was hosting rock concerts on its stage in order to help keep the theater open.
However, this wasn’t enough. In 1984, the Madison was shuttered, its last film, ironically, was ‘The Dead Zone’ (which remained on its marquee for a long time after it had closed).
In the 90s, the Michigan Opera Theater, which purchased the Capitol Theater to remake it into their new home, also acquired the Madison and announced plans to restore it for use as a performing arts center, but were ultimately unable to raise enough money. It was sold to a developer in 2000 who intended to replace the theater with loft units (though the Madison Building behind the theater would remain).
Though in poor shape (a victim of heavy water damage and decades of neglect), the Madison was still restorable, but nevertheless the auditorium was razed later that year, with the marquee the only piece to show the building housed a theater.
After demolition of the theater and gutting of the building, it stood empty for a couple years before finally changing owners. Construction began mid-2005, finishing the building with a new infill facade designed by the Kraemer Design Group. A temporary bar was housed in the building known as “Madison’s On Broadway.” A permanent bar is set to open after more work is done in the building.
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