Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Stars Still Shine at Detroit's Redford Theatre

The Redford Theatre
As a teenager, I saw a handful of movies at the Redford Theatre in Detroit--classics like The African Queen, On the Town, and Shane. Everything about the Redford felt historic, from the organ to the interior architecture to the way they showed Warner Brothers cartoons before the feature and always had an intermission when we could refill our pop and grab more snacks without missing any of the action. I remembered how, once the lights dimmed, the sky-blue ceiling shone with hundreds of tiny lights, giving the audience the feeling that it was watching a movie under the stars.

Until Saturday, it had been a couple of decades since I visited the theater, so my memory was a little fuzzy about the building's architecture. Regardless, I was excited to bring my wife and two girls to the theater. The Redford was showing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and my daughters were excited to see it for the first time in a movie theater.

A Japanese-themed painting in one of the staircases
The theater's yellow-trimmed marquee is not as imposing or ornate as those of other old movie houses in Michigan, which only makes the inside of the Redford Theatre more impressive. When the theater first opened in 1928, it had a larger marquee, but it was later replaced. Part of it was used for scrap metal during World War II, not the only change brought on by the war. The theater's original Japanese-themed interior was removed or painted over after Pearl Harbor, and much of it was still hidden when I last visited in the early 1990s.

The lobby's ceiling art and chandelier
The lobby is not as lavish as some theaters from that era, but it has some beautiful touches, such as decorative stencils on the walls and ceilings and chandeliers in the grand foyer that were recovered from Detroit's Oriental Theatre. Stairways on each side of the lobby lead to the balcony seats. 

Another view of a chandelier from Detroit's old Oriental Theatre in its new home
Although the lobby is beautiful, the auditorium is glorious. The auditorium was designed to feel like a Japanese garden, with the stage and walls on each side of the stage capped with Japanese-style roofs. We explored the main level of the auditorium first. I marveled at the four Japanese figures on each side of the stage. These were new to me, as they had been discovered under several layers of paint in 1995. It was sad to think that they were exiled for 50 years but heartening to know that they have outlived the fear that tried to banish their memory.

Two of the Japanese figures that were buried for 50 years
The theater's original organ sits in front of the far left of the stage. It was installed for the silent movies that were still being produced in 1928, and it is one of two original theater organs left in Detroit, the other being the Fox Theatre's. The Redford's Barton pipe organ is still in use today. The organist plays music for about a half hour before the feature, as well as during the intermission (Yes, they still have an intermission).

The Japanese figures on the left side of the stage
The kids in the audience loved the organ and the piano on the right side of the stage that is played by the organist from the organ console, making it appear as if a ghost from the 1920s is playing it. A few kids dressed in Harry Potter costumes were waving their wands back and forth in front of the piano as if their spells were causing the keys to move up and down. 

I always sat in the balcony when I was younger, so my family and I went upstairs and found a seat in the front row of the balcony. Growing up watching movies in generic multiplexes, I always found it exciting to sit in the balcony and watch a movie like they did in the old days. 

Another Japanese-themed painting above a staircase
Before the film began, I headed back to the lobby to buy drinks from the concession stand. The concession stand is reasonably priced, especially compared to today's multiplexes. Get the popcorn with butter! The Redford uses real butter on its popcorn; it's filling but fantastic.

I headed up to our seats with more than enough candy, popcorn, and pop. When the organist finished playing, both he and the organ console descended below stage level (another feature I loved as a kid). When it was time for the film to begin, the light dimmed. I looked up and saw that the stars were shining, brighter than ever.

The Redford is located in Detroit's northwest corner on Lahser Road near Grand River Avenue and Six Mile Road. It shows films on Fridays and Saturdays approximately every other weekend, and it is also available for event rentals. For a list of upcoming events, click here. Also, for a really cool interactive tour of the theater, click here, but trust me that the Redford Theatre is even better in person. Finally, the Redford Theatre's preservation and continued existence would not be possible without the efforts of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society.


  1. I would love to catch a movie here next time we are in Detroit!

    1. They don't have movies every week, but hopefully they will when you visit. If the Redford isn't showing a movie when you're here, there's another old theater in Detroit called the Senate Theater that I haven't visited (but I want to). They also have an organ and show old films.