A Decade of Detroit Movie Palaces

My general interest in the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre began ten years ago this month, when I saw the most remarkable film I have ever had the privilege of viewing.

Ponette, the DFT’s final film of the 1996-97 season, had gotten very positive reviews in both of the Detroit newspapers. The DFT schedule called this movie “one of the most powerful and affecting works ever made about childhood.”

After a four-year old girl loses her mother in a car accident, she works through several stages of grief to face the future in a heartbreakingly poignant final scene. After the film, as I walked into the sunshine of a spring day, I felt a profoundly deeper understanding of the human condition.

I was amazed at how this movie worked as both a fictional film and a documentary. You could empathize so strongly with this young child that you almost shared her emotions as she took important steps towards “emerging—together with the audience—at a gloriously new awareness of what it means to be alive.” (DFT schedule)

I was so powerfully moved by Ponette that I had to see it again, to relive its extraordinary drama and maybe see new things. Luckily, the Michigan Theater was showing it about a month later, and that visit began a steady stream of trips to 603 E. Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor.

A New Way of Seeing Old Movies

About a week after I saw Ponette, I saw in the newspaper that the Redford Theatre was showing an intriguing double feature—The Meanest Man in the World (with Jack Benny) and Thanks a Million (with Dick Powell). Now, how often do you see a twin bill like that?

My interest in seeing old movies on the big screen had been building for several years. The main branch of the Detroit Public Library used to have Friday and Saturday night double features in the basement auditorium. During intermission, visitors enjoyed free cookies and hot drinks.

Then came that extraordinary weekend in April 1996 when the National Film Registry tour of the Library of Congress came to the DFT. During a showing of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I still remember how powerfully the soundtrack music of Max Steiner filled the auditorium.

So those experiences helped set the stage for a humorous, musical evening at the Redford with a couple of entertaining movies from the 1930s. After that, I was hooked.

My Favorite Things

As I look back, what experiences stand out the most?

  • The impressive renovation efforts at all three theaters. I’ve enjoyed the comfort of new, historically accurate seats. I’ve admired the visual splendor of restored wall paintings at the Redford; the application of glistening gold leaf at the DFT; and complete makeovers of the marquee, ticket booth and concession area at the Michigan.
  • The commitment, dedication and attention to detail of the theater staffs. With huge doses of Tender Loving Care, they have preserved the beauty of these theaters and created unique film programs. Also, the faithful fans of these movie houses deserve special credit for looking beyond the megaplex.
  • And the countless film discoveries, even with movies that I had seen many times on television. The surprisingly emotional Sound of Music sing-a-long at the Michigan. The epic sweep of the one continuous scene of Russian Ark at the DFT. The honestly human explosion of laughter by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly at the end of The Pirate at the Redford.

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had film experiences that ranked among my best ever at these theaters. On April 28 at the Redford, I savored the final scenes of the most famous Hollywood movie of all—Gone with the Wind—in the kind of setting where it was originally shown.

On May 6 at the DFT, I slipped into the patient, delicate rhythms of Into Great Silence, a peaceful movie about a monastery that felt shorter than its two-hour, 42-minute running time. And just yesterday at the Michigan, at the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival, I was moved by two extraordinary films about courage during World War II—Raoul Wallenberg: One Person Can Make a Difference and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

Detroit Movie Palaces Web Site

I’ve enjoyed my visits to these three theaters so much that a couple of years ago, I felt compelled to create this web site. I wanted to look at these theaters as one multi-faceted filmgoing experience and deepen my understanding of these movie palaces.

My main mission with this web site is to help create a community of interest in these three theaters and help keep their doors open. Maybe this site will help a visitor to one of these theaters be turned on to the rewards of another.

I’ve also tried to actively connect moviegoers with:

  • The rich history of these theaters, through the Looking Back feature.
  • The creativity, insight and fun of current movie events, with these blog entries.
  • The ever-flowering future, on the What’s New page.
  • So that’s one movie fan’s story of the irresistible powers of these ancient wonders. What other personal journeys of filmgoing discovery have lead to the palatial grandeur and flickering darkness of the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre? Feel free to share your own experience in the Reply box below.

    Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

    Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

      This entry was posted in Detroit Film Theatre, Foreign Language, Michigan Theater, Redford Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

      4 Responses to A Decade of Detroit Movie Palaces

      1. Laura Barnes says:

        Thanks for telling us about how this site came into being. Very interesting story. My journey with historic theaters started at the Redford in 1986. I had friends that faithfully attended films there and I went with them and just fell in love with the theater. All my experiences with films were in very common box-theaters. I’m old enough to say I can remember single screen movie theaters and in my late teens I saw the rise of the multi-plex. The movie theaters I experienced growing up was all about the film and nothing about the venue it was shown in.

        Once I visited the Redford I was impressed that the films were wonderful and I got an extra bonus of an organ concert before the film, the illusion of being in a beautiful Japanese garden setting and when I’d look up at the ceiling I saw twinkling “stars” above. The movie going experience became much more of a treat. I was also impressed by the sense of community I felt every time I visited. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I remember Don Lockwood (who I believe passed away within the last few years) would greet the crowd and tell us a little about the film. I saw many of the same volunteers week-after-week selling concession items or directing traffic in the women’s bathroom. (For those who don’t know, the women’s room is very long and skinny. It is difficult to see what stall is available and there was a very sweet older lady that stood towards the end of the skinny hallway and let people in line for the bathroom know what stall was available.) You were always well taken care of at the Redford Theatre.

        Then in the mid-1990’s I visited the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. WOW! What a beautiful place and the films were so unique. They showed films from around the world and many films were shown with sub-titles! I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I don’t have a lot of money to travel but whenever I saw a film at the Michigan Theater from India, France, Italy, or other countries I felt like I was actually visiting that country. The organ concert and the fresh popcorn with REAL butter was such a treat! (Not fake butter topping that is featured at most multi-plexes) I quickly realized that you get more for your money at beautiful historic theater. Eventually I started volunteering with the theater and loved every minute of it.

        Then in 1999 I lost my job and started to look for a job that I really loved. I searched in the non-profit world in Ann Arbor and was offered a couple of positions but nothing suited me well. Then Gayle Steiner, the Development Director at the Michigan Theater approached Russ Collins, the Executive Director about creating a position for me as the Membership Manager/Volunteer Coordinator. Russ agreed to create this position for me and take a risk. This risk paid off, membership revenue went from $65,000 a year in 1999 to almost $300,000 in 2007. I have a job I love too!

        The Detroit Film Theater also has a special place in my heart. I’ve seen several films there over the last 15 years. My favorite was the William Castle film festival they had a few years ago around Halloween. I still have my Ghost Viewer/Ghost Remover glasses from the film 13 Ghosts. I display them proudly in my office. What a fun night and I LOVE the lounge at the DTF. I always buy a little snack or a glass of wine when I go to the DTF. Their lounge is so lovely that it MAKES you want to buy a drink or a snack.

        I must confess my love of historic theaters has grown. I went to the League of Historic Theatres conference in Kansas City in 2005. It was such a pleasure to tour all the historic theaters in that town and I’m looking forward to attending the LHAT conference in Boston this summer and touring more theaters. When I’m on vacation now I tend to check out the historic theaters in the towns I visit too. The Tampa Theatre in Florida was a delight to see this past February when I was on vacation.

        Lastly, in my little hometown of Plymouth, I take pleasure in seeing the Penn Theatre flourish. It is a 1940’s style theater and not as grand as DTF, Redford or the Michigan but it is a critical part of the downtown landscape of Plymouth. It almost got demolished but the citizens saved it. The Penn is a downtown gathering spot for the Plymouth community and I hope it always stands proudly along side Kellogg Park. It makes Plymouth a more interesting place to visit and there is a sense of community there that is priceless.

        Thanks for keeping this blog going. I check your site most every day.

      2. Administrator says:

        Wow – this kind of reply makes worthwhile all the hours spent researching the Looking Back column, digging through web sites to find material for the Foreign Language and Old Movie listings, and sparking my imagination for blog material. Thanks for all the interesting observations—I hope they inspire others to share their experiences.

        I second the comments about the Penn. It reproduces the old neighborhood movie experience that is so well documented in the current Detroit Historical Museum exhibit, Detroit: The ‘Reel’ Story: 100 Years of Going to the Movies in Metro Detroit. Its programming includes a Thursday night series of classic movies like Breakfast at Tiffanys, Rear Window and The Maltese Falcon.

        Another memorable experience of my 10 years attending these three theaters has been the anniversaries: 75-year celebrations at the Michigan and Redford in 2003, and the 25th anniversary of the DFT in 1999. For most people, these theaters (including the DFT auditorium) have existed all their lives—they’ve always been there. They haven’t had a limited lifespan like so many other theaters, including the boxy mall-based theaters that were so popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

      3. Allen FitzGerald says:

        I would like to say thank you. As one of the volunteers at the Redford Theatre I have spent 32 years working at the Redford. It was the theatre I went to as a child. I saw Jerry Lewis there in the 60’s. I did not know the organ was even there until I went to a concert with my parents in 1974. When I was going there their was a black lump in the pit. I never paid any attention to it. There were gold drapes on the walls and the paint was yellow. The main ceiling was still blue but the under side of the balcony was white. The lobby was yellow with a white ceiling and the outer lobby was brown paneling with a drop ceiling.
        As you can see we have done a lot of restoration work to the building. When we took it over the theatre had closed. They tried a showing of the stewardess (rated X) It showed for about 3 days. The owners told us the choice of who to offer the theatre to was us or a church. I am glad it was us. For all of our faithful patrons. A great big thank you. Please introduce your self when you are there. I can usually be found behind the sound and lighting booth. I love to talk about the theatre and our restoration.
        Again Thank You.
        Allen FitzGerald

      4. Administrator says:

        Thanks for the recent history of the Redford Theatre. Your detailed description of how the theater used to look helps show how much progress has been made by the all-volunteer staff. I’m really impressed with how the outer lobby is being restored. While listening to the organist, I often gaze around the theater with admiration at all the fine detail.

        Sometimes I sit in the aisle way outside the balcony, soaking in the atmosphere as I listen to a pleasurable mixture of organ-playing and enthusiastic voices rising from the concession area. While I sit there, I also get a close-up look at the finely painted woodwork and the ceiling of the inner lobby, with its chandeliers from the old Oriental Theater in downtown Detroit.

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