Destination Film: Redford Theater

I remember the first time I saw the 2014 horror film It Follows in the theater and as the film watched it’s lead heroine and her boyfriend go out to a movie, I was probably the only guy in the room who couldn’t help but shout out loud ‘Hey, it’s the Redford Theater!’.  One of the longest standing, still surviving original movie palaces to open in Detroit, Michigan in 1928, the ornate, glamourous gala movie palace located in the heart of the old Detroit neighborhood remains an indelible landmark for Michigan filmgoers and justly earns its tagline ‘The Way Movies Were Meant to Be Seen’.  

With its three-story grand foyer, Japanese interior design and being the only neighborhood theater with a still functioning original Barton theatre organ built to accompany silent film productions as well as provide overtures/intermissions for special event features, the 1,581-seat Redford Theater owned by the Motor City Theater Organ Society is one of Metro Detroit’s most beloved entertainment experiences which feels like a trip back into a bygone era.

Originally named the Kunsky Redford Theater after lessee John H. Kunsky Co. purchased and managed the venue, the Redford Theater was designed by Verner, Wilhelm & Molby of Detroit as well as contracted by John H. Patterson of Plymouth.  Opening for the first time in January 1928, the theater boasted a grand vertical sign and marquee using over 2,000 multicolored lights outside the front entrance.  As you walked in through the red carpet gala lobby into the main auditorium itself, you were then transported inside what looked like a Japanese garden with mock pagoda-style rooftops and a ceiling looking like a bright blue sky with miniature lights to give the illusion of twinkling stars. 

The feeling one gets inside the massive theater is that of a traditional Japanese Noh theater setting, except that this was designed and erected purely in Michigan.  The theater employed roughly twenty-four patrons to manage ushering, ticket tearing, concession stands, operating the Barton organ, the heating system and the 35mm carbon arc light projectors. The theater was heated using four coal-burner furnaces requiring full time management and operation until 1931 when the heating systems were converted to oil fuel.  For a short time, Mobil Oil seized the opportunity to promote their product through the Redford Theater as the ‘largest structure in area converts to oil fuel’. 

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the decision was made to obscure all of the Japanese interior decorating and artwork with panels either removed or painted over entirely.  Also the vertical marquee sign that was in place was taken down and scrapped for iron to contribute to the war effort though the horizontal marquee remained untouched.  Due to projectionist union guidelines, the seating was then reduced to 1,200 to meet the rules and regulations and the remaining rows of seating were spaced apart to make for more leg room.

Around 1964 the Motor City Organ Theater Society was formed and after being granted permission under new ownership by the Goldberg family were allowed to begin restoration work on the Barton organ which found disuse over time during the 1940s.  Not long thereafter, the Redford Theater began seeing more live performances and organ concerts following the last shows of the day. 

About ten years later, the Community Theaters company running the Redford Theater deemed the venue unprofitable and began talks to sell the venue to the Motor City Organ Theater Society.  As the deal was being finalized, the projectionists at the Redford acquired the 35mm/70mm film projectors from the then defunct Summit Cinerama Theater and along with gaining the ability to project 70mm film prints the idea of a classic movie revival series was born.

Throughout the 1980s, the Redford Theater would see a gradual return to its original 1927 form with chandeliers from the defunct Oriental Theater which shared the same design as the Redford donated to the theater.  While walls previously installed to mask Japanese décor post WWII were being removed, in 1985 the Motor City Organ Theater Society finally secured full ownership of the land, property, parking lots and the theater in full itself. 

Over the next twenty years, a painstaking volunteer effort to remove the six or seven layers of paint obscuring the original Japanese stenciling and artwork goes underway until all of the original art is revealed.  After the original designs are matched up with the colors, efforts are undertaken to touch up the surviving artworks to restore them to their original condition as moviegoers first saw them when the theater first opened.

Currently the Redford Theater is a purely volunteer nonprofit operation still taking donations for ongoing restoration of the lobby, the theater seating and the restrooms.  While occasionally new films are screened with the advent of a new Dolby CP-200 Cinema Processor and updated sound readers for the film projectors, the Redford Theater is mostly known for showing revival screenings of older films. 

Booking a number of special events including meet and greet shows with the movie stars in the films themselves present, attendance at the Redford Theater increases dramatically.  Everyone from Tippi Hedren, Pam Grier, Shirley Jones, Curtis Armstrong, Bruce Campbell and many more would eventually make an appearance at the Redford for a meet-and-greet event followed by the films prominently featuring the movie stars themselves. 

Of the movie theaters in the Metro Detroit area including Ann Arbor’s own Michigan Theater with its own Barton organ, the Redford Theater while still operating as restoration work-in-progress with volunteer efforts remains one of the few to regularly gain access to archival theatrical prints for their screenings.  Last summer, the Redford became the only movie theater in Michigan to play the newly minted 70mm print for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Among the attractions at the Redford Theater are inside the lobby which sports a number of collectible movie-related t-shirts as well as posters.  Each show is preceded by the skilled organists playing music as well as resuming organ duties during a show’s intermission.  Unlike other theaters which only do intermissions for films that originally included them, the Redford Theater provides their own brief intermission for every film at the midpoint, giving patrons time to refresh their snacks and drinks, purchase raffle tickets to win free tickets and/or special collectible t-shirts. 

With ticket prices almost as low as $5 (depending on the event) with concessions in some cases even cheaper than the movie ticket itself, the Redford Theater has also left ample room for unique volunteer food service efforts like with the Harry Potter film screenings which included the film’s trademark Butter Beer.  Moreover, the Redford which is open to rentals depending on the time and event has begun to do live shows on stage either consisting of music or stage theater. 

All in all, the Redford Theater is proving in an ever changing marketplace it is something of a jack of all trades, able to do just about any kind of show live or on film/video with an affinity for involving the patrons and local communities.   While occasionally a professional cleaning crew will be hired to come through the theater to clean the carpets and aisles, the Redford Theater typically offers free tickets and concessions to any patron in attendance willing to stay after a show to assist with the cleanup. 

Having been a filmgoer all of my life having attended many venues throughout the state and country, the Redford Theater might be the one and only ornate movie palace that truly makes you the attendee feel like you are part of it and not just a visiting guest.  In the last few years I myself enrolled in their membership program and have assisted with a few events including working concessions for the highly popular Bruce Campbell event.  Even the projectionists are happy to say hello to regular patrons eager to take a look behind the curtain where the magic happens. 

Though it still has a long way to go in the restoration effort with some shows proving to be more of an uphill battle for the theater than others, having access to the Redford Theater is truly a gift for Michigan filmgoers to be cherished and enjoyed.  With the far chillier multiplex venues sandwiched together in standard theater chains, it’s gratifying to know a near century old venue like the Redford Theater still has a future bearing many surprises ahead for Michigan moviegoers.  Most of all, the Redford Theater truly lives up to its reputation as a beloved venue providing filmgoers with, like the tagline says, ‘the way movies were meant to be seen’.

- Andrew Kotwicki