When Gone with the Wind screens at the Redford Theatre on March 2, 3, and 4, 2012, more than 70 years will have passed since it first appeared in Detroit movie theaters.
And like those openings in January 1940, it will be given a special presentation, including a Sunday afternoon screening and the appearance of the “Gone With The Wind Answer Lady” Kathleen Marcaccio at all shows.
Although Gone with the Wind is considered one of the great movies of 1939 (like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka), many people first saw it in early 1940, along with such films as His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, Pinocchio, and The Shop Around the Corner. Publicity for the first nationwide screenings of Gone with the Wind was greatly helped on February 29, 1940, when it was awarded several Oscars, including the top prize for Best Picture.
When I was reading through contemporary accounts of the opening of Gone with the Wind, a couple of things struck me. People had been waiting a long time for the release of this movie, with much anticipation, following the publication of the novel in 1936.
And when the movie opened, many people were holding their breath with uncertainty about how well English actress Vivien Leigh would play the Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. In the January 28, 1940 edition of The Detroit Free Press, three days after the Detroit opening, James S. Pooler wrote about the pressure on Vivien Leigh to succeed in this role. In an article titled “Critic Salutes the Perfect Meeting of Vivien Leigh and Scarlett O’Hara,” he wrote:
“Against critical audiences, given to having movie favorites, she had to play something to the popular taste that was complex and not simple to interpret, a character widely known and interpreted in different fashions.
“We can’t recall a tougher assignment in the history of the movies.”
Atlanta Opening (Friday, December 15, 1939)
“Atlanta is Won by Film of South,” read the headline on the front page of The New York Times of December 16, 1939. The subhead continued, “Rebel Yells for Miss Mitchell Mingle with Applause and Cheers of 2,000 at Premiere.” Appearing at the premiere were Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, along with the male lead of the film, Clark Gable.
The Loew’s Grand Theatre in downtown Atlanta was made up to look like the Twelve Oaks mansion where Scarlett O’Hara lived with her family. “The Twelve Oaks set lay under a blinding play of light from three sides,” wrote Times reporter Meyer Berger. “The Hollywood producers of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ here for the premiere, brought into action all the show devices used for West Coast openings.”
The event was quite festive. “Women who ordinarily might occupy a small space took five to six times the ordinary amount because of the hooped skirts,” read the Times article. “Many of the men wore pre-war costumes, too. There was a fair sprinkling of young men in Confederate uniforms which had belonged to their grandfathers.”
New York Opening (Tuesday, December 19, 1939)
In stately letters bordered by elegant lines, an advertisement in the December 1, 1939 New York Times simply read, “Announcing the New York Premiere Tuesday, December 19th…8:30 p.m. of Gone with the Wind.”
Gone with the Wind would open at two theaters on one of the city’s most famous streets—the Astor at Broadway and 45th Street and the Capitol at Broadway and 51st Street. Ticket prices ranged from 75 cents to $2.20 for all-reserved seating twice a day at the Astor and unreserved seating (except for opening night) three times a day at the Capitol.
“Time of showings, reserved and non-reserved seat policy and prices will vary at both theatres,” read the Times ad. “It is IMPORTANT, therefore, that you read the details of both engagements given below in order that you may determine which suits your convenience best.”
Detroit Opening (Thursday, January 25, 1940)
“At Long Last! Date Is January 25,” read a headline in the January 8, 1940 Detroit Free Press. “Movie You’ve Heard About Is on Way.”
The article announced that Gone with the Wind would open on January 25 at the Wilson Theatre (now the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts) and the now-closed United Artists Theatre. At the Wilson, tickets were $1.10 and $1.50 for two daily shows of reserved seats (2 p.m and 8 p.m.), while at the United Artists, tickets went from 75 cents to $1.50 for unreserved seating at 10 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. and reserved seating at 8 p.m.
In the Free Press article, James S. Pooler ran through the basic details of times, seating policy, and ticket prices, and finished with, “That, we hope, answers the innumerable questions about where, when and how much–the last facts which need presentation about the noted ‘G.W.T.W.’ ”
Much publicity surrounded the opening. Costumes worn by the cast were on display in the windows of the Himelhoch Brothers & Co. store on Woodward Avenue.
“Although the show really opened in Detroit at 10 or so yesterday morning, beginning its run at the U.A., there was definitely THE first-nighter air around the Wilson performance in the evening,” wrote Judy O’Grady in her society column in The Detroit News (January 26, 1940). “It was not a dressy crowd but a thoroughly excited one that packed the theater.
“Voices were either trembling with anticipation or pitched a note or two too high. But the pronounced buzz in the auditorium died the instant the lights dimmed although the atmosphere was electric and stayed so for four hours.”
Gone with the Wind played at the United Artists for about two months, until March 30. It played about three more weeks at the Wilson, with the final performance on April 17.
Photos and other interesting information about the Detroit opening of Gone with the Wind appear in two valuable books about movie theaters in Detroit: Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces, by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon, and Motor City Marquees, by Stuart Galbraith IV.
Ann Arbor Opening (Friday, March 29, 1940)
“EXACTLY AS SHOWN AT ITS FAMED ATLANTA PREMIERE!” read a March 26, 1940 Ann Arbor News advertisement for the Ann Arbor opening of Gone with the Wind at the Majestic Theatre, which was closed only two years later, and eventually torn down. Its old location is now the site of the Maynard parking structure.
Gone with the Wind played at the Majestic for one week, three times a day. Moviegoers paid 75 cents for unreserved seats at the two weekday matinee shows and $1.10 for reserved spots in the evening and at a Sunday matinee. The timing of its Ann Arbor opening was typical for the era, occurring near the end of the downtown Detroit run. Like newspaper ads in other cities, the Ann Arbor ads read, “While this engagement is limited Gone with the Wind will not be shown anywhere at advanced prices…at least until 1941.”
Detroit Neighborhood Opening (Friday, June 7, 1940)
In the 1940s, new movies in Detroit would usually play a few weeks at a downtown theater (in the general area of Grand Circus Park). After their first run ended, they would appear about three months later at several Detroit neighborhood theaters like the Redford.
The first neighborhood run of Gone with the Wind was limited to just the RKO Uptown at Six Mile and Woodward. It played for one week, three times a day.
“We suggest that you get there early,” read an ad in The Detroit Free Press (June 6, 1940). “The weekday matinees will be usual continuous performances with no reserved seats. You may come anytime from 10 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and see a complete show.”
Detroit Downtown Re-Release (Thursday, February 13, 1941)
“NOTHING CUT BUT…THE PRICE!” shouted an ad in the February 13, 1941 Detroit Free Press, announcing the re-release of Gone with the Wind at the United Artists Theatre.
For this run, which lasted six weeks until March 26, the number of daily shows was boosted to four (9 a.m., 1 p.m., 5 p.m., and 9 p.m.). Ticket prices dropped to 40 cents for adults until 4 p.m., and 50 cents later. Children were charged a quarter.
The Wilson, which teamed up with the United Artists to debut Gone with the Wind in downtown Detroit 13 months earlier, was busy premiering another famous film in February 1941—Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Detroit Neighborhood Re-Release (Friday, June 20, 1941)
The first general neighborhood release of Gone with the Wind occurred more than a year and a half after it first appeared in Detroit. It returned to the RKO Uptown, and also opened at four other theaters scattered around Detroit. These included the Cinderella on the east side, the Riviera on the west side, the Fisher in midtown Detroit, and the Broadway Capitol (now the Detroit Opera House) in downtown Detroit.
It played for one week at these theaters, with newspaper ads saying, “This may be your last chance to see it at the lowest admission prices this great picture can afford.” Ticket prices were the same as the prices at the United Artists run earlier in 1941.
Redford Theatre (Friday, March 2, 2012)
Gone with the Wind has maintained a huge popularity through the years, with periodic re-releases. Its television debut in the 1970s drew high ratings.
Since the Classic Film Series of the Redford started in 1977, Gone with the Wind has appeared five times at the theater (1980, 1986, 1990, 2007, and 2012). This information comes courtesy of the film database on the Redford’s web site.
Because of the length of the film, and the setup and cleanup time needed by the hard-working all-volunteer staff, the Redford decided to add one day to its programming routine. The evening shows on Friday and Saturday will be held at the usual start time of 8 p.m. The 2 p.m. show will be moved from Saturday to Sunday afternoon.
So come to the Redford on March 2, 3 or 4 to help Gone with the Wind continue its celebrated and enduring history.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.