Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Gem and Century Theatres

The Gem and Century Theatres are both housed in a complex originally built as a clubhouse for the Twentieth Century Club, a women’s social club. Built in 1902 of red brick and trimmed with white sandstone, the building is now the Century Theatre. The first floor was originally a dining room, with a 400-seat auditorium on the second floor. The theatre showcased an ornately painted ceiling, plush carpet, and iconic 1920s lighting.

In 1928, the club hired architect George D. Mason to design a theater addition to the Century Club building. Known as the Little Theatre, the building showed foreign films and was leased to the Little Theatre chain. The Twentieth Century Club disbanded in 1933 as a result of the Great Depression, but The Little Theatre persisted, changing names several times to become The Rivoli in 1932, later Drury Lane, and Europa in 1935. It was known as the Cinema from 1936 to 1960, where it screened foreign films, and switched again to the Vanguard Playhouse, where it started putting on stage shows.

The Vanguard Playhouse was renamed the Gem in 1967 and used as an adult movie house until it closed in 1978. In 1991, Charles Forbes, who owned the Fox and State theatres, purchased the Gem and Century Building. Forbes began the 18-month restoration of the Gem to its original design - including its carpet, which was redesigned from a small section of the original carpeting found in the basement of the theater. On New Year’s Eve in 1991, the Gem reopened with the musical revue All Night Strut

In 1997, the Gem/Century Building was lifted from its former foundation and moved five blocks to its new home at Madison and Brush streets. With plans for a new baseball stadium for the Detroit Tigers, the Gem and Century buildings had to move, or be destroyed. Weighing at more than five million pounds, the move found its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest building ever relocated on tires. On September 9, 1998, the Gem Theatre reopened following its restoration. The Century building reopened the same year as the Century Theatre, which now holds a 200-seat theater, as well as banquet facilities and a restaurant. The old YWCA building previously located at the site was demolished, yet many pieces were saved and incorporated into the new Gem/Century building. 

The Gem Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.



Interior of the Gem Theatre, 1992

Program for "The All Night Strut!" at the Gem Theatre, 1991

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