Even before the entertainment began on the night when the Redford Theatre celebrated its 80th birthday (April 19, 2008), I could sense a deeper, richer feeling in the theater than I usually did. This feeling brought out more of the texture and details of this ancient wonder, like the intimate lighting under the pagoda eaves and the smooth varnish of the staircase railing.
This feeling had taken hold of me as I entered the front lobby, where a young lady dressed in 1920s-style clothing was playing the piano. Other people were dressed in a similar manner, with glittering flapper dresses and cloche hats. In the auditorium, visitors (many in formal clothing) gathered in groups of friendly conversation, as a special air of anticipation hovered over everyone.
Soon we were all back in 1928, courtesy of the Hotel Savarine Society Orchestra, which brought back the sound and look of the hotel ballroom orchestras of the 1920s. The smooth, subdued harmonies of the woodwinds and brass mixed with a strumming banjo, a jangly piano, a pumping tuba, and cymbal-heavy percussion. And the occasional crooning made it even more fun.
As I listened to this music, I thought, this is like those small orchestras and other acts that years ago were part of an evening’s entertainment at some of the larger movie houses in Detroit. Like on August 8, 1932, when the Michigan in downtown Detroit presented Lou Forbes and orchestra, guest organist Merle Clark, and a “Colorful Revue” that included the musical Stone-Vernon Foursome and “12 Gorgeous Girls”. All before the new movie Skyscraper Souls, with Warren William and Maureen O’Sullivan.
The Savarine orchestra provided energetic, fun backup music for other outstanding entertainers. Singer Velma Jones, all decked out in a glowing pink dress, belted out some powerful blues ballads in the style of Bessie Smith. And the Pleasant Moments Vintage Dancers gave dramatic and humorous examples of the foxtrot, tango, Charleston, and other dances of the era.
As I watched the dancers, I thought about a 1929 movie with Mary Pickford that I had seen the day before on Turner Classic Movies. Coquette was set in 1928, and won an Academy Award for Pickford, who played a carefree young lady who loved to flirt and dance at parties. The memory of that movie as I enjoyed the dancing made the history of the Redford and the world of Coquette even more real.
All of this excitement led up to a vibrant and pleasant series of musical pieces by organist John Lauter, the main host for the evening’s festivities. John was perched at the shining jewel of the Redford Theatre—its Barton Theatre Organ. During the intermission, American Theatre Organ Society president Ken Double emphasized that it was the “organ people” who were the driving force behind the survival of such theaters as the Redford, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, and the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio.
The Barton was in its usual fine form, as John played songs from the 1920s, like Lover, Come Back to Me, by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II. He also played along several times with the Savarine orchestra, creating new textures for classic melodies that helped make this an extra special night.
This unique musical combo was one of many beautifully rendered effects provided by the always creative volunteer staff of the Redford, like an off-stage voice talking about the hopes and dreams of the builders of the Redford, followed by the debut of the new ceiling starlights.
The impressions included the Pleasant Moments Vintage Dancers entering from the orchestra pit. The Barton organ with John Lauter rising into view as the platform for the Hotel Savarine Society Orchestra rolled to the back of the stage. Small, candle-lit tables in the corridor on the lobby side of the balcony. And of course, the historic and nostalgic atmosphere of the Redford that keeps people coming back.
Visitors were treated to a refrigerator magnet that included the logo of the Redford and a reproduction of its starry ceiling. A souvenir program was packed with colorful pictures and insightful history.
Adding to the 1920s atmosphere was a short Buster Keaton film, The Electric House (1922), with John Lauter providing musical accompaniment. Buster demonstrated modern electrical conveniences of the 1920s, including an escalator stairway and a model train that helped serve dinner. It was the perfect movie on a night when Redford moviegoers traveled back to the time when the Redford was a brand new theater (which of course it still is for any first-time visitor).
This Buster Keaton film came on a memorable day when I also enjoyed four other short Keaton movies, at an afternoon screening at the Detroit Film Theatre of Daydreams (1922), The Boat (1921), The Balloonatic (1923), and One Week (1920). Pianist David Drazin’s sharp notes accented the acrobatics of Keaton, whose creative plots and stunts continue to amaze. Hearing two styles of silent film music for the same actor in one day was another of the many “comparative analyses” I’ve enjoyed in observing the different strengths of the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre.
Soon, the happy night at the Redford was over. Patrons filed slowly through the outer lobby, where they enjoyed birthday cake and punch. On the way home, I noticed a near-full moon lighting the night sky, which brought back the theme for this wonderful evening—80 Years Under the Stars: A Gala Celebration.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.