Visions of Greatness

In the fascinating new book Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces (2006, Arcadia Publishing), authors Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon write:

“When reviewing the history of how downtown Detroit’s movie palaces evolved, one word certainly comes to mind, and that is visionary.”

This book, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of commercial movie theaters in Detroit, taught me much about the rise and fall and (in some cases) rebirth of the great theaters of downtown Detroit. As I read it, I wondered how the word “visionary” might apply to the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre.

With all three theaters, ambition and imagination was needed at two crucial times—when the theaters first opened, and when a new mission was formed in the 1970s:

  • When the Detroit Institute of Arts opened in 1927, it included a large and ornate auditorium that complemented the art displays that filled most of the museum. In 1974, Elliot Wilhelm launched the Detroit Film Theatre, which took advantage of this impressive auditorium with a stimulating art film series that continues to this day.
  • In 1928, the Michigan Theater added to the moviegoing options of downtown Ann Arbor with a theater that was larger than the Main Street area theaters (Orpheum, Wuerth) and more elegant than the nearby Majestic. In the late 1970s, when changing times threatened the Michigan with a fate similar to that of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit (now a parking garage), private citizens and politicians saved the theater.
  • The Redford was part of Detroit movie theater pioneer John Kunsky’s vision in the 1920s to bring the films to patrons on the outer edge of the Detroit metropolitan area—a trend that continues today with megaplexes in the suburbs. In the 1970s, the Motor City Theatre Organ Society built on its interest in the Redford’s Barton organ to buy the theater and create a classic movie series.
  • In addition to their film programs, all three theaters present live events, which were the key to the survival of the still-active theaters (like the Fox on Woodward) that are mentioned in Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces.

    “The buildings themselves have come full circle from live entertainment to exclusively films and now back to live performances,” write Hauser (marketing manager for the Detroit Opera House) and Weldon (curator of collections for the Detroit Historical Society).

    Valuable Historical Detail

    Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces has given me a deeper understanding of many of the theaters that I write about in the Looking Back feature of this web site:

  • The Paramount Theatre that showed Platinum Blonde in 1931 became the Broadway Capitol that screened a double bill of Rock, Pretty Baby! and Gun the Man Down in 1956. After years of being closed, the theater came back to life in 1996 as the Detroit Opera House.
  • The Wilson Theater that opened in 1928 evolved into the Music Hall, which in 1956 screened the Cinerama movies Cinerama Holiday and Seven Wonders of the World, and now presents a variety of live events.
  • In 1931, the Little Cinema Theatre on Columbia near Woodward presented German language films like Zwei Menschen (Two People). As the World in 1956 and 1957, it teamed with its partner theater Studio to present art films like Rififi and La Strada. Now, this venue survives as the Gem Theatre, after being physically moved to make room for Comerica Park.
  • And of course, there’s the “Fabulous Fox Theatre,” which screened Riders of the Purple Sage in 1931 and Carousel in 1956, and now hosts big live events like the recent White Christmas show.
  • On Christmas Day 1956, several demolished or currently unused theaters in downtown Detroit hosted exclusive presentations of major movies: Madison (The Ten Commandments), United Artists (Around the World in 80 Days), Adams (The Teahouse of the August Moon) and Michigan (Hollywood or Bust).

    Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces will help you further appreciate the surviving theaters of downtown Detroit, as well as the dedication, vision and commitment of the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre.

    Note: Information for this essay also came from Stuart Galbraith IV’s valuable book, Motor City Marquees: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Motion Pictures in the Detroit Area, 1906-1992 (1994, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers).

    Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

    Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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