Honoring History

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I made my second visit today to the Detroit Historical Museum’s fascinating exhibit about movie theaters in Detroit.  Detroit: The “Reel” Story is a valuable record of local history, and any movie buff should hurry to see this show and find out how the Detroit moviegoing experience has evolved through the years.

As I looked through the glass cases at usher jackets, “Dish Night” dishes, and old popcorn boxes, I wondered how the spirit and content of this exhibit could continue after it ends.  One way is to pick up its companion book, Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces, by exhibit curator Michael Hauser and Detroit Historical Society curator of collections Marianne Weldon.

Another way might be to expand the information displays at each of the Detroit Movie Palaces.

The experiences and memories of the The “Reel” Story have been best preserved by the Redford Theatre (which turns an amazing 80 years old today, January 27, 2008). The old neighborhood theater is almost completely gone from the city of Detroit, except for the Redford.

The Redford could advertise itself as the Museum of Detroit Movie Theater History.  Just staying open qualifies it for that title, with its lovingly restored detail that takes people back to a time when each area of Detroit had its own uniquely styled theater.  It would be great for some of the items in The “Reel” Story to find a permanent home at the Redford, expanding on the intriguing collections of items that appear in the glass display case near the piano in the inner lobby.

The spacious downstairs area of the Detroit Film Theatre would be the perfect place for a display about the history of art film in Detroit.  It would be fun to see when Detroit audiences first got to see movies like Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion or Sergei M. Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. When the DFT opened in 1974, it built on a tradition of art film that stretched back many years and took many paths.  It also helped fill in a void for moviegoers who missed the older art film houses.

An art film exhibit would include the Little Cinema, which in the 1930s specialized in German and Russian language films.  It would also include that rich period in the 1950s when Detroit-based theaters like the Krim, Surf, Coronet, Studio, World, and Temple Art Cinema presented serious movies like Federico Fellini’s La Strada and sexy international stars like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot.

The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor already has a very good exhibit about the city of Ann Arbor that focuses on the most important facts about the Michigan and the moviegoing experience in Ann Arbor.  Everytime I walk by this exhibit, in a hallway between the main theater and the Screening Room, I get a deep feeling for the role that the Michigan Theater has played in the life of Ann Arbor.

It would be interesting to see how the selection of Ann Arbor movie theaters has changed in the 80 years that the Michigan has been open.  I’d be particularly interested in the role of the Butterfield theater chain in the cultural life of the city, with Michigan Theater manager Gerald Hoag a prominent public figure for about 50 years. The Screening Room does have images of old Ann Arbor theaters like the Orpheum and Whitney.

Special Memories

Much of the fun of browsing through The “Reel” Story exhibit was hearing comments by other visitors, like “Algiers drive-in! That’s where the Toys R Us is now” and “That’s where I went” and “Look what was showing!” 

A man started talking to me about the Redford Theatre, and told me how the theater had been restored and had an organ that rose out of the floor.  I had so much fun listening to his enthusiastic comments that I didn’t tell him that I had been there myself. 

Of course nostalgia can only take you so far.  Building on the past, appreciating the present, and planning for the future is always the best way to go. 

I appreciated a recent article by Detroit Free Press writer John Monaghan about the variety of current moviegoing experiences in the Detroit area.  It covered everything from drive-in theaters to state-of-the art first run theaters to specialty theaters like the DFT and Redford.

But the foundation for all of these experiences was created many years ago, in the flickering shadows of many long-gone Detroit movie theaters.   

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr. 

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