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:
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.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.