For anyone who has seen filmmaker David Robert Mitchell’s Detroit, Michigan based sleeper horror hit from 2014, It Follows, viewers got a brief glimpse of what in the past few years has become one of the hottest mom and pop cinematic attractions of the Metro Detroit area: the prestigious single-screen movie palace The Redford Theater. Originally opening on January 27th, 1928 as a local movie theater, the ornate and elegant theater features a three story grand foyer, full sized stage, balcony and still intact golden pipe organ frequently used for every show’s overture and intermission. Stepping inside this non-profit volunteer project dedicated to showing 35mm/70mm film prints with a focus on classic films from the 1940s and 50s is like taking a trip back into time to a Golden Age of Cinema where the presentation of the theater itself was as integral to the experience as the image quality itself. Unusual to the interior décor of red carpets, wallpaper with a blue ceiling with intricate twinkling star lights is the presence of predominantly Japanese theater design with a pagoda inspired rooftop above the screen and images of Japanese women in kimonos, a feature briefly obscured during the height of the Second World War.
Over the years the pipe organ was becoming used less and less frequently before being phased out completely though the organ never left the auditorium or underwent any dismantling. In 1978 the projection booth acquired two 35mm/70mm projectors from the Summit Cinerama as they faced foreclosure, soon bringing sold out screenings to the theater while still working against dwindling profits. As the multiplex chains began to take hold of the mainstream moviegoer across the nation, smaller single movie houses including the world famous Ziegfeld Theater in New York began to close their doors and the Redford soon faced foreclosure as the owners saw their profits diminishing before offering to sell their remaining organ to the Motor City Theater Organ Society. Like most dormant movie palaces across the nation, the prestigious Redford Theater was facing near extinction when, in an unprecedented move in 1985 by the Motor City Theater Organ Society, the venue was purchased outright and became full owners of the theater. Reopening after years of restoration work, repaving of parking lots, new carpeting, repainting of the Asian décor and blue sky ceiling, a new heating system and a Dolby CP-100 sound processor, the Redford Theater commemorated the restoration by showing a 70mm print of My Fair Lady in 1995. Eventually older seats were removed, all of the seats were replaced and both the concession stands and lobby were restored with ornate red carpeting and adorned with classic movie posters.
Being a Michigan resident and avid consumer of 35mm/70mm film presentations, having the Redford Theater available as a volunteer effort which comes from the generous donations and efforts from people like you and me truly is a gift back to the Detroit community. While the Henry Ford did away with their 15/70mm IMAX film projectors in the course of separating ties from the IMAX corporation, theaters like the Redford Theater and the Detroit Film Theater are dedicated to still giving audiences the grand cinematic experience in the truest form and essence possible. In other words, while the Redford Theater does house a DCP digital projector for those rare classics that are all but unavailable in celluloid prints, their primary focus has been on getting bona fide film prints in staying true to their tagline ‘The Way Movies Were Meant to Be Seen’. Much like the Detroit Film Theater, the Redford has attracted celebrities from across the nation including Rita Moreno, Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Pam Grier, and most recently Mary Badham who reminisced about her experiences making To Kill a Mockingbird at a Q&A during the film’s intermission. It’s one thing to see your favorite stars onscreen and quite another to have the rare opportunity to meet them firsthand.
One of my favorite experiences with the Redford in addition to seeing some of my favorite films theatrically for the very first time and being able to participate in cleanup of the auditorium on special occasions was being able to set foot in the actual projection booth to witness the magic of cinema happen firsthand. There really isn’t anything like seeing the giant piece of machinery with the film threaded in the projector itself and getting to meet the talented individuals who are volunteering their own time and skills to the art of film projection. After having seen the poignant but lovingly made documentary The Dying of the Light at the Cinema Detroit earlier this year, it’s immensely gratifying to see a large group of dedicated film lovers eager to keep the tradition alive and well. With so much of the elite film venues moving out of Michigan towards the likes of New York, Indiana, California, Texas and Chicago, the Redford Theater truly is a gift to Michigan residents and among the very last of a dying breed. As of current, it and the Traverse City State Theater are my favorite movie houses in Michigan for giving filmgoers the very best possible film experience they can have in the grandest fashion where it isn’t just another movie in another row of standardized multiplexes but a full on experience where the feel of the theater and the hard work of those committed to making it a reality is as important as what finally ends up being projected on the screen.
- Andrew Kotwicki