"It is a fine thing to put into the heart of the city an institution which will offer a broadening, refining and uplifting influence on the community...We need forces which are dedicated to spiritual values instead of just to the material progress of the city."
So declared Mrs. James Schermerhorn, a member of the Twentieth Century Club, upon the completion of the Little Theatre of Detroit in 1927. The Twentieth Century Club, a group of cultural and civic-minded women of social prominence, had contracted architect George Mason the previous year to build a two-story theatre to adjoin their Century Club facility, built in 1903.
The Twentieth Century Club facility is a Mission-style building constructed of white sandstone and red brick, with artistic stone carvings and overhanging cornices. The first floor originally housed a well-lit dining room, while the second floor served as an auditorium area with a seating capacity of 400. The adjoining theatre, now known as the Gem Theatre, boasts a rich history of sophisticated film screenings and bawdy vaudeville acts.
One year after the Spanish Revival-style Gem Theatre was completed, the Twentieth Century Club leased the theatre to the Motion Picture Guild, which operated the Little Theatre chain. The Little Theatre of Detroit showcased artistic movies created in foreign markets, opening with the first foreign film shown in Detroit, the French adaptation of Cyrano De Bergerac. The following week, moviegoers saw the ground-breaking films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Charlie Chaplin's Dough and Dynamite.
The Twentieth Century Club kept its headquarters in the building until 1933, when, as a result of the Depression, they disbanded. In the late 30s and throughout the 40s, the building was known as the Russian Bear Restaurant, featuring an authentic Russian menu and balalaika music.
The Gem housed a residential professional troupe in 1959, when the theatre was named the Vanguard Playhouse. Opening on Christmas night, 1959, the repertory theatre produced George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell. Through a period of financial difficulties in the early 1960s, the Vanguard Playhouse showcased such experimental plays as Dark of the Moon, The Disenchanted, Three Penny Opera and The Hostage.
Over the decades, the Gem Theatre has survived several name changes: the Little Theatre (1928 - 1932); Rivoli (1932 - 1934); Drury Lane (January 1935 - April 1935); Europa (September 1935 - January 1936); Cinema (1936 - 1959); and the Vanguard Playhouse (1960 - 1964). Finally, in 1967, the theatre was named the Gem and operated as an adult movie house under that name until it closed in 1978.
Soon after the theatre closed, developer Charles Forbes purchased the Gem/Century building, and began a complete restoration of the Gem Theatre in 1990. The restoration returned the theatre to its original brilliance, with all interior details authentically reconstructed. The intricate red, gold and blue patterns of the proscenium panels were discovered under layers of black paint, and the decorative carpeting was recreated from historical photos and a small section of the actual carpeting found in the basement. Lighting fixtures and theatre seats from the 1920s were salvaged from the Ambassador Theatre, a movie palace in St. Louis.
On December 31, 1991, the Gem Theatre opened with the musical revue The All Night Strut!, marking a new phase for Detroit's theatre district. From 1991-1997, the Gem enjoyed a series of hit musical and comedic productions. Shear Madness became Detroit's most popular and longest-running comedy. National musicals such as Forever Plaid, Forbidden Broadway and Beehive confirmed the Gem's status as a world-class musical playhouse.
Ironically, the show that re-opened the Gem in 1991 closed the theatre once again. Following the final performance of The All Night Strut! revival, the Gem Theatre was shut down and faced with extinction in view of the City of Detroit's plan to construct new stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions. Upon reaching an agreement with the city in April 1997, however, the Forbes family began preparations to relocate the Gem/Century building and preserve this historic structure for a second time. On November 10, 1997, the Gem Theatre completed its five-block journey, breaking the 1986 Guinness Book world record as the heaviest building ever moved on wheels. The Gem reopened at its new location in September 1998 with the popular musical comedy I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.
After relocating the building, the Forbes family began renovation of the Century Club facility. The Century Club building reopened in April 1999 with a production of Forbidden Hollywood in the 200-seat Century Theatre. Recently restored to its original Arts and Crafts style, the Century Club now houses artifacts from the historic downtown YWCA building, which was condemned to make way for the new sports stadiums. These relics include Pewabic tile removed from the YWCA swimming pool, stained glass panels from the chapel, leaded glass doors, ornate chandeliers, and antique fireplaces. The grand opening of the Century Grille Restaurant in June 1999 completed the painstaking, yet rewarding restoration process of this well-loved Detroit cultural treasure.