The 85th birthday is approaching for the Redford Theatre, the Michigan Theater, and the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts that hosts the Detroit Film Theatre. All three theaters have taken on ambitious renewal projects that will make them more user-friendly, a term that probably wasn’t used when the buildings opened in 1927 and 1928.

The Michigan recently unveiled a redesigned web site that helps visitors navigate through lists of events for the two auditoriums at the Michigan and two more at the State Theater, which the Michigan programs.

The site includes the kind of interactivity and spontaneity that Internet users of the 21st century have come to expect. It has a more wide open design that makes good use of white space. Two sections of the home page rotate through highlights of upcoming events and a list of sponsors.

Its master schedule now gives equal billing to movies at the State, which helps users understand that many films that open at the Michigan often continue their run at the State. The site includes several blogs.

This continues efforts by all three theaters to maximize their online exposure, which includes sites for Facebook and Twitter.

Michigan Theater web site, May 8, 2012

Michigan Theater web site, May 8, 2012

For the next few months, the physical presence of the DFT will be the Lecture Hall of the DIA. The auditorium will be closed so that the steps behind the auditorium can be re-built. This project will make it safer for DFT visitors who exit the theater from the balcony onto those steps. It will also prevent leakage into the basement restrooms, which are often closed, forcing patrons to use restrooms in the main DIA building. The windows in the Crystal Gallery Café also will be renovated.

Detroit Film Theatre auditorium, back steps (August 2009)

Detroit Film Theatre auditorium, back steps (August 2009)

The Redford also will be remodeling. It will be closed for a few months in early 2013 so that new carpeting and seats can be installed. Most, if not all, of the restoration work will be performed by Redford volunteers. You can help their efforts by donating money at specially marked locations in the theater. You can always invest in the physical structure of the Redford, Michigan, and DFT through seat sponsorships and other kinds of donations.

Historical seats, Redford Theatre

Historical seats, Redford Theatre

Another Year Started

About four months ago, all three theaters were faced with the annual challenge of renewing themselves with another year of programming. As we tentatively transition from winter to spring to summer (sometimes in one day), it’s fun to take one last look at the theater schedules that I’ve read many times over the last few months.

I made my first visit to the DFT in 2012 on Sunday, January 15. I left wondering which journey felt the longest—the voyage into space by entrepreneur Richard Garriott (in Man on a Mission) or the carefully hidden odyssey through a coastal French city by the young illegal immigrant in Le Havre.

The 1950s was a time of technical innovation in the movies, in response to the threat of television. One such innovation was color processing, and Redford visitors in January saw how the mighty M-G-M experimented with different processes. First, we saw Anscocolor in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and then two weeks later, Forbidden Planet (1956) used the better-looking Eastmancolor.

In February, organizational rules were main themes of the Academy Award Best Pictures From Here to Eternity (1953), a creative Valentine’s Day treat at the Michigan, and The Apartment (1960) at the Redford on February 17-18. In these films, you saw how both authority figures and direct reports exploited the gray line between the formal and informal rules of the workplace.

The sing-a-long The Little Mermaid at the Michigan on February 19 included the magical sight of the audience waving hundreds of light wands during some of the songs. That movie has become a pivotal moment in the history of Disney animation. It helped bring back some of the magic of such animated Disney classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and 101 Dalmatians (1961).

It also helped usher in another Golden Age for Disney, the string of animated musicals that included Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). I also enjoyed the cel-based animation, a technology that is slowly fading away in this era of 3-D and digital animation.

Both the DFT and the Michigan screened this year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film, A Separation, from Iran. Despite the political tensions between Iran and other countries, you could still appreciate this film as a non-political essay that skillfully used the medium of film to take a close look at everyday life, how it plays out with all its stresses and imperfections. It was one of those powerful films that pushed you outside of your comfort zone and made you feel alive to a wider variety of experiences.

In March, fans of John Wayne got to see him in two famous roles that showed how his career, image, and physical appearance changed through the 1950s. In The Quiet Man (1952), the Redford’s St. Patrick’s Day gift to its patrons, he blended in well with an ensemble cast under the able direction of John Ford. In Rio Bravo (1959), at the DFT on March 24, you could see the emergence of the heavyset star power presence that dominated many of his later movies. He was starting to amble through scenes, The Duke, among guest stars that in the Howard Hawks-directed Rio Bravo included singers Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin and television stars Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins.

I wasn’t there, and this isn’t film-related, but I must mention that the Michigan and the Ark hosted the Levon Helm Band on Monday, March 19. It was one of the last concerts by this great performer before he died on April 19, 2012.

The DFT’s Detroit Revealed on Film series included the April 19 documentary Urban Roots. This film about using vacant land in Detroit for farming could be very inspiring for anyone willing to take control of their destiny and make the best of the available resources. Personal appearances on the DFT stage by the film’s director and people who appeared in the film added to the depth of this educational and entertaining evening.

The Detroit Revealed on Film series also included documentaries about changes in Detroit’s economy (After the Factory) and the Grande Ballroom rock and roll club (Louder Than Love).

Goodbye to Winter

The winter/spring seasons of the theaters wrapped up with a collection of movies that touched on several areas of the alternative filmgoing experience (old movies, foreign films, documentaries).

Saturday, April 28 was a memorable day for fans of old crime movies. In the afternoon, the DFT 101 series hosted the 1956 race track heist thriller, The Killing, one of the first films by director Stanley Kubrick. A few hours later, the Redford had its second showing of a James Cagney double feature that included The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).

The next day, April 29, I visited the DFT again, for the poignant Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar, another nominee for this year’s best foreign film Oscar. This film, set in Quebec and subtitled in French, showed how both adults and children cope with tragedy. It was so powerful that I hope to see it again at the Michigan, where it just opened.

And on Monday, April 30, at the Michigan, I saw the 1959 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. This vibrant, observant film about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival helped visitors connect with such music legends as Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing, and Mahalia Jackson.

It was the final film in the Monday Moving Pictures series that was hosted by Martin Bandyke of radio station 107.1 in Ann Arbor. The series included a variety of pop and jazz documentaries, including The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi (2009) and Monterey Pop (1968).

These three days of movies enabled me to visit each theater after a recent visit to one of the other theaters. That contrast always helps me re-discover something unique about each theater, even after hundreds of visits. It’s a form of renewal that I look forward to continuing.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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