When famous Detroit television movie host Bill Kennedy went to Hollywood in the early 1940s, he set in motion a chain of events that led to a very heartwarming and entertaining day at the Redford Theatre on Saturday, November 3, 2018.
On that day, the Redford presented a tribute to Kennedy, whose modest career in Hollywood led to a more successful second career as a popular movie show host on Detroit area television stations from 1956 to 1983.
The show was hosted by Redford volunteer John Monaghan, who spent many hours researching Kennedy’s life and career for this event. John also helps present the annual film noir and classic cartoon festivals at the Redford.
John also writes movie articles for the Detroit Free Press, which has put him in contact many times with Elliot Wilhelm, who founded the Detroit Film Theatre almost 45 years ago.
The tribute to Bill Kennedy at the Redford began with an on-stage conversation between John and Elliot in which they both expressed their admiration for Bill Kennedy, who helped fuel an enthusiasm for movies in both men that in turn helped them build up two quality film programs.
Elliot talked about how Kennedy helped hook him on movies at a very early age after Kennedy starting hosting a movie show on CKLW-TV in 1956. Through the years, Elliot was impressed by Kennedy’s wealth of knowledge and stories about the movie industry, as well as his interviews with famous people when they passed through Detroit.
Much of Kennedy’s collection of movie stills and other valuable items are now stored at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which includes the Detroit Film Theatre. Elliot said that the DIA hoped some day to exhibit part of that collection for the public to enjoy.
It was fun to see the pop culture side of Elliot Wilhelm, who most people have seen talking seriously about art films in the austere elegance of the DFT auditorium. He spoke enthusiastically about watching such Detroit TV movie hosts as Kennedy, Rita Bell, and Sir Graves Ghastly.
Seeing Elliot and John Monaghan on the Redford stage also helped underscore the incredible luck of Detroit moviegoers to have the DFT and the Redford, which perfectly complement each other in their programming and style, in restored historic auditoriums.
A Salute to Bill
The Redford’s tribute to Bill Kennedy included a variety of clips from his film and television careers, including scenes with Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington and Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc.
The Redford audience also enjoyed Kennedy in two of his few leading roles.
In 1945, Kennedy starred for Universal Pictures in the 13-part serial The Royal Mounted Rides Again. The Redford screened one episode, which concluded with Kennedy in a dangerous situation that would be resolved in the next episode.
Kennedy used his income from this serial to help produce the feature comedy The People’s Choice, in which he starred as a politician who also sang on the radio. Local television historian Ed Golick introduced The People’s Choice with a humorous imitation of Bill Kennedy.
The People’s Choice was a cute little B movie that helped take the Redford audience back to a time when such movies were common as the lower half of double features.
As I watched Kennedy on the big screen, I tried to understand why he didn’t have more success in the movies. At times, he reminded me of a young Walter Pidgeon, with his commanding height and deep voice.
But he just didn’t have that something extra to break through to stardom, which led him to kick around in the early 1950s between Hollywood and Detroit, where he had worked on radio before trying his luck in the movies.
Eventually, fate (and the advice of a good friend) helped him find his niche as a movie host at the age of 48.
The Redford show included many clips from his television show. Once again we were tuned in to Channel 50 on a Sunday afternoon, with Bill’s pompously humorous style warming us up for another classic movie.
The Kennedy tribute was a great idea, but I wondered how many people would show up. Kennedy retired 35 years ago in 1983, which meant that most people under the age of 45 didn’t know about him.
But good crowds showed up for both the afternoon and evening presentations, and their warm appreciation for Bill filled the 90-year-old Redford auditorium with warm vibes that were as much of a tribute to Bill Kennedy as what was shown on the screen.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.