The Kunsky Touch

The year 1928 was an amazing year for motion picture theater construction in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas.  Movie palaces that opened that year include the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor, and two other still-existing theaters that I visited on July 26, 2008—the Redford Theatre and the Royal Oak Music Theatre. (Motor City Marquees, Stuart Galbraith IV)

At the Redford, I enjoyed a matinee showing of a Walt Disney classic, Swiss Family Robinson.  Later I drove over to the ROMT, which that evening was celebrating its 80th anniversary with a showing of an Our Gang comedy and the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film, The Circus.

What made the day even more interesting was the fact that the Redford and the Royal Oak were both originally owned by the Kunsky theater chain, which had these two theaters (and the still-standing Birmingham Theater) built at about the same time.

Walt Disney

Swiss Family Robinson was released in December 1960, during a period that also saw the release of other famous Walt Disney movies, like 101 Dalmations (February 1961), The Absent Minded Professor (March 1961), and The Parent Trap (July 1961).  Like other Disney films of this era, it had the personal touch of Walt Disney (who would die in 1966). (The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin)

Seeing Swiss Family Robinson on the screen brought back pleasant memories of Sunday night television during the 1960s, when The Wonderful World of Disney would show recent movies released by that studio.  The exploding fireworks over the Disneyland castle and that rich, friendly announcer’s voice were a major part of many childhoods of that time.

The wide screen of the Redford Theatre was the perfect host for this tale of a family shipwrecked on an island.  Once again, the Redford took me back to another period of movie history, and helped me relive my youth.  The whole atmosphere of the Redford—the organ music, the relaxed mood of the matinee intermission, the companionship of other movie buffs—helped me forget the outside world and live inside my movie memories for a couple of hours.  In the inner lobby, the sharp new blue soft drink machines gave Redford visitors even more options for how to quench their thirst.

Before the movie, I paid my second visit to the barbershop two doors down.  I had walked by that shop many times without stopping in, but always admired the large landscape mural on the back wall.  The recent retirement of my last barber led me to try the “Redford barber,” and I’m happy to say that Paul Bologna did an excellent job with my hair—all for $10 (plus tip).

Paul has been in that location for 50 years. Talking with him, I got a better feel for the neighborhood that surrounds the Redford.  Several people stopped in and said Hi.  Paul told me there is a positive feeling in the area, with groups like the Motor City Blight Busters, Inc. trying to make this section of Detroit a better place to live—a role that the Redford has also played for the last 80 years.

It’s all part of an attitude of appreciating what you’ve got, be it a neighborhood, or a well-preserved old movie theater. In Swiss Family Robinson, John Mills gave a poignant speech about the virtues of living the simple life.  It made me think of all the tough economic lessons of today’s world, as high gas prices and mortgage foreclosures make us think more seriously about living within our means.

Royal Oak Music Theatre

It had been more than 25 years since I visited the Royal Oak Music Theatre, for a rock concert starring the one and only Iggy Pop.  The ROMT has thrived as a concert venue for many years.  The Redford and the ROMT have the same basic configuration, and many of the differences come from the transformation of the ROMT into a large night club.

Similarities between the Redford and ROMT include a spacious outer lobby where people can gather and easily move between the auditorium and the sidewalk. Both inner lobbies are compact areas where you can buy concession counter treats (Redford) or alcoholic beverages (ROMT).  In both theaters, quietly elegant staircases on each side of the inner lobby lead you up to the balcony, where corridors have a personal, intimate touch.

The auditoriums are about the same size and shape, with chairs and small tables replacing regular movie seats on the main floor of the ROMT.  The balcony of the ROMT has a mixture of chairs and tables (in the back), and regular movie seats (in the front, at the railing).

I sat in the ROMT balcony for the first part of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the March 6, 1928 opening of what was originally called the Kunsky Theatre. 

Before the movies started, a short speech was given by David Heidt, grandson of the theater’s architect (Frederick D. Madison).  Heidt noted that his grandfather was the architect for many other buildings in Royal Oak, including the Washington Square Building, built on the same block as the ROMT on the west side of downtown Royal Oak.

Heidt’s speech made me think about all the different professions involved in the construction of movie theaters (architect, owner, manager, etc.).  I’m guessing that the architecture of the ROMT combined a basic design from the Kunsky theater chain with the design work of the local architect Madison, who knew the tastes of area residents and could help the theater fit in with the master plans of the city and the Washington Square Building block. 

The construction of the ROMT was also part of the significant decision by the Kunsky theater chain to locate these theaters outside of Detroit (the Redford was originally not in Detroit), near major roads (Woodward, Grand River) that would eventually carry people away from the central part of Detroit to the suburbs. 

It’s interesting to note that the Kunsky brand name remains strongly associated with these theaters, even though the Kunsky chain owned these theaters for only about a year before selling them to the Paramount Picture Publix Division of theaters in 1929 (Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces, Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon).  

Soon, on this 80th anniversary of the ROMT, the lights went down, and I was enjoying the musical comedy short Our Gang Follies of 1938.  The Our Gang crowd was always cute, and in Follies, they also sing and dance up a storm.  As I munched on the 25-cent popcorn that was part of this special evening, I thought about the magical feeling of many 1930s movies, when the newness of talking pictures and the anxieties of the Great Depression brought much carefree escapism to the big screen.

After the Our Gang movie, I moved down to the main floor for the feature, the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus.  Silent film comedy is the best way to show off an old theater, and that evening was no exception.  The movie and the setting took me back 80 years, and also brought back that wonderful feeling of discovery that I experienced the first time that I saw movies at the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre. 

The breezy, upbeat musical theme of The Circus (written by Chaplin) gave the evening an extra kick of elation.  As the images flickered across the screen, I stared around at the skillful imitations of pillars and small balconies that lined both sides of the auditorium.

As I walked out of the ROMT, I took one more look at outer lobby photos of the construction of the theater in 1927, when it was as widely anticipated as any new megaplex or IMAX screen of the 21st century.  As I looked at these old photos, a player piano filled the air with the sweet sounds of nostalgia, and representatives from the Royal Oak Historical Society talked with visitors about the old days of their community.

And I reflected once more on the valuable new insights I had acquired that evening into the vast history of the old movie theaters of the Detroit/Ann Arbor area—a history that is much larger than all the great experiences I have had at the DFT, Michigan, Redford, and other old area theaters.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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    2 Responses to The Kunsky Touch

    1. Laura Gabriel says:

      Thanks for sharing your story on the Royal Oak Music Theatre 80th anniversary. I recently got married and moved to Royal Oak. I keep my eye on things that are happening at my hometown theater and I really wanted to attend the 80th anniversary. I’ve not seen the inside of this theater over in over a decade! However, scheduling conflicts prevented me from going. Your blog is great. After reading it I felt like I was there. Thanks again.

    2. Administrator says:

      Thanks for the comment – I’m very glad this blog acts as a historical record for some of the many great events at area movie palaces. I love making connections between theaters. The Kunsky connection between the Royal Oak and the Redford – the Barton theater organs of the Redford and the Michigan – the foreign film selections of the Michigan and the DFT.

      Congratulations on your marriage – you’re very close to the Main movie theater, which shows a lot of specialty films that also appear at the Michigan. The great schedule of the Michigan means that Ann Arbor area movie lovers don’t have to drive far to see foreign and independent films.

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