How beloved community theater houses across metro Detroit have adapted to survive

As a kid growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, movies were pure magic for Kim Clough. Every time she walked into Plymouth’s historic Penn Theatre she fell under their spell. Perhaps it was the salty fog of buttered popcorn filling the lobby, or the spray of rainbow-colored candies stacked neatly under glass. Perhaps it was the excitement she felt as she followed her parents past lively faces peering out from postered walls. Watching the lights dim. Music. Action.

As she grew older, Clough and her friends spent their after-school hours and weekends hanging around the Art Deco theater in Plymouth’s town square. Like many local teens, they gathered on the lawn at Kellogg Park and near the spray of its coin-filled fountain. When a movie opened at the landmark single-screen they crossed the sidewalk in groups to see it.

“It was the thing to do,” the Canton native says. “The Penn Theatre has always been a meetup spot.”

When she and her husband, Robert, started dating after graduation, this was still the case. Having both grown up in the area, The Penn loomed large in their experiences. Walking downtown as a couple, eating out along Main Street, and going to see a cheap movie became the perfect date night. When they married and began raising children themselves, they found a home in Plymouth, where the theater remained central to many happy occasions. 

“Every Christmas season, our whole family goes to see "The Polar Express", no matter what,Clough says. “It’s our tradition.” And when her father turned 70 a few years ago, she remembers how they went to the movies to celebrate his birthday, the family nearly filling a row of seats. 

At 21, 18, and 16 years old, her children now have their own history with The Penn. They’ve walked with their classmates and teachers from the nearby West Middle School to view films about the subjects their studying. On the weekends, they might grab a bite and see a show with friends. Over the years, in this familiar community spot, Clough never worries about them.

“I’ve known the people there forever," she says about the theater's longtime volunteers. "It’s such a light to see their faces. It really gives you that hometown feel.”

The Penn features heavily in Kim Clough's memories. Photo: Steve Koss.
During COVID-19, The Penn, which originally opened 1941, was closed for over half of 2020 and 2021. Clough’s hometown experience was shuttered. But the nonprofit organization who runs the theater found small ways to shine a light and stay connected to their community. During its shutdown, 100 new messages appeared on their marquee in the form of a movie quote.

“Depending on what was going on in the world, and in our town, and depending on how people were feeling, the movie quotes would inspire,” says Ellen Elliot, president of the Friends of the Penn, “or even sometimes make people mad.” 

“We tried to be uplifting, but some things like respecting and listening to others were worth giving people a challenge about.”

Clough regularly shared the highlighted quotes from characters like Forrest Gump, Dorothy Gale, Willy Wonka and others with her community. When the theater opened to sell curbside concessions, as a way to show their support, her family bought snacks to eat in the park or enjoy at home while streaming.

“We missed going to the movies so much,” she says, “and we missed that movie popcorn."

Now, she’s thrilled to be back again, meeting up with girlfriends, destressing solo, or connecting with family. She appreciates the theater's current mask mandate which makes her feel safe, she says, and doesn’t mind that ticket prices have gone from $3 to $5 during the pandemic. Her recent favorite, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”, is worth every penny.

“Everything’s gone up in price and we want to see this place flourish and stay open," she says. "The Penn’s a staple here. It kind of goes hand in hand, an old town with an old theater. It would be sad if they ever went away.”

The Penn Theatre in Plymouth shows current second run and independent films Thursday thru Sunday. To help keep their mission alive, the theater is seeking advertising sponsorships for all of their shows. Businesses, organizations and individuals can sponsor a movie and see their name on the marquee and on posters in the lobby, etc. Learn more at

Photo: Steve Koss.

A restored movie palace on Detroit’s west side

Since 1928, The Redford Theatre, in Detroit's Old Redford neighborhood, has delivered a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The 1600-seat single-screen, balconied theater presents movies, film festivals, and concerts the same way it did over 90 years ago, hosted by an emcee and accompanied by live organ music. The theater's rich design harkens back to a more opulent time in the city’s history. 

Owned and run by the Motor City Theater Organ Society (MCTOS) since the mid 80s, the theater offers an “eclectic mix” of films, from old classics, cult favorites and kids movies, to musicals and independent films. It's historic Barton Theatre Pipe Organ is played for 30 minutes before each show and during intermission. This gives guests the opportunity to walk the theater’s dual staircases, take in its "night sky" and Japanese-inspired murals, or purchase raffle tickets and movie memorabilia.

Over the years, stars from films like “West Side Story”, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and “Napoleon Dynamite” have visited The Redford to share with audiences about their experiences acting in these iconic pictures.

Photo: Steve Koss.

During the pandemic, the theater hosted drive-in movies for the community outside their building with concessions and a live organ concert. Every Thursday evening, they’ve held watch parties on their Facebook page, meant to make viewers feel like they’re at the show. An emcee introduces the film while on stage, the music plays, the curtain opens, and the film begins. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of moviegoers have “attended” these events. 

MCTOS board member and man of many hats, Steve Overstreet, says that during a terrible time patrons and volunteers have been “unbelievably generous, “supportive” and “committed to making sure we did not go under.”  Special event rentals, a large part of the theater’s revenue, are sold out for the remainder of this year.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” he says about the community. “It's a real testament to the history of the theater, and the history of us owning it for the last 40 years.”

All shows at The Redford Theatre are $5. Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window", starring James Stuart and Grace Kelly, runs Feb. 24 and 25, followed by a Patrick Swayze weekend on March 4th and 5th. Disney’s "Aladdin" will bring a live Jasmine and Aladdin in costume to see families at The Redford Theater April 29 and 30. See the full spring/summer schedule here

Photo: David Lewinski.

A Farmington stalwart

Not every theater has been fortunate. Royal Oak mourned the loss of The Main Art Theatre last year when it closed its doors after enriching the community through independent and arthouse films for 80 years. While The Redford and The Penn endure the pandemic by staying the course, last September The Farmington Civic Theater changed its tune completely. For the first time in decades, the 81-year-old cinema became a first-run movie house, hosting blockbusters like “Encanto” and “Spiderman: No Way Home” through the holiday season.

The second-run model is more difficult these days, with delayed release dates and movies heading straight to streaming, the cinemas general manager Scott Freeman told Metromode. Since making the switch, he’s seen a spike in ticket sales and movie releases have become much easier to schedule.

During the pandemic, The Civic, which turned 80 in 2020, has stayed connected to its community through social media, virtual movie-watching events, and its Out Front concert series, which started in 2016. In warmer months, local artists can be found busking for audiences outside the theater. The cinema's also been selling to-go concessions during its open and closed periods. These include a family-size bag of popcorn or a bucket instead, that can be taken into nearby breweries. 

This isn’t the kind of thing that pays the bills, Freeman notes, but it's helped to remind the community that they’re still there. Now that moviegoers are once again coming to The Civic to see the latest releases, and private rentals are returning, the theater manager hopes the cinema will see brighter days. 

General admission at The Farmington Civic is $8.50 per ticket. For matinee showings, and senior citizen and children discounts, $5.75. Enjoy free popcorn every Tuesday with movie admission. 

Bloomfield Hills’ darling stays strong

Featuring art and foreign films, The Maple Theater has been a culture landmark in Oakland County since 1977. 

Managing partner Ruth Daniels grew up in the area and went six times to the theater in 1978 just to see the film “Grease”. Ever since she was a little kid, she says she’s “believed in movies”. Unless there’s an apocalypse (and she kind of feels like we’ve had one) movie theaters will be around, “because a kid has to have a place to take a date on the weekend, you know?” 

But these last couple years have been hard. Arthouses have taken a much harder hit than commercial theaters, Daniels says. The Maple’s patrons also tend to be of an older demographic and they aren’t returning to screenings as quickly as younger viewers. As for the films themselves, it's hard to schedule for release dates that keep getting delayed. 

Small films, The Maple’s bread-and-butter, aren’t receiving the same support and promotion from studios as they did pre-COVID-19, she says. And a movie that would normally play at two or three theaters, like the Oscar-nominated “Licorice Pizza”, is now featured at many more.

Daniels is still hopeful, however, that things will settle again.  

“People said streaming’s gonna kill the movies,” she says. “They said TV was gonna kill the movies, VHS was gonna kill the movies, cable and DVDs were gonna kill the movies. But, nothing kills the movies. There’s a lot of money to be made at a movie theater.”

Besides a movie, The Maple offers its communities intimacy, a shared experience and special programming. A connection with patrons is kept up through weekly newsletters and social media posts. The theater’s "Secret Cinema" meets twice a month to show old Hollywood, new Hollywood and long movies. Though viewers don’t know what they're going to see until the lights go down, these films have been the cinema's most attended since the pandemic. 

Another highlight of the arthouse is that you can have dinner, a movie and a nightcap from just one parking spot. Though the theater closed its eatery, The Maple Kitchen, due to COVID-19, Como’s Restaurant, a local pizza icon, has been in the space for the past year. Moviegoers can enjoy a gourmet deep-dish pie during their show, along with an alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink. 
Though it will take some time, the community is coming back, Daniels says, because there’s a place here for everyone, including the small, thoughtful films that will eventually get pushed out of the mainstream. 

“One thing I always say is if you take a child to the movies, and they have a great time, they’re going to want to go the rest of their life,” she says. “And if we can just keep that happening, then we’ll keep the movies.”

Films coming out this month at The Maple Theater include Breaking Bread, The Worst Person in the World and Cyrano, the timeless story of a self-conscious wordsmith who hides behind another to woo the woman he loves.

Wayne theater rises again

On New Year’s Eve 2021, The State Wayne Theater on Michigan Avenue turned 75. The historic movie house has seen many lives. In 2014, it was bought by Phoenix Theatres, who'd been running it for the city of Wayne since 2012. The muraled landmark has welcomed generations of moviegoers, and is today a first-run cinema with all the amenities of luxury seating and immersive sound.

The theater is widely known for its late-night edition ofThe Rocky Horror Picture Show”.  The shadow cast experience is held every second and fourth Saturday of the month, and performed by the Michigan Rocky Horror Preservations Society. Since 2012, well over 15,000 customers have visited from across the country to see this event that helped put the theater on the map, says owner Corey Jacobson.

Along with upcoming blockbusters, like “The Batman” and “Top Gun: Maverick”, the four-screen cinema also hosts Turner Classics and cult favorites like “Poltergeist”, “Smokey and The Bandit”, “The Breakfast Club”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. 

The pandemic's been very tough for the entire industry, Jacobson says, who also owns theaters in Massachusetts and Iowa. His businesses in Michigan are having the hardest time recovering. At places like The State Wayne, COVID-19's broken the cycle of consistency with employees.

“When you work at the theater, at least with us,” he says, “then your younger sister and brother work there, and your next door neighbor shows up and starts working at the theater too. We were closed so long in Michigan that the pandemic kind of ended all that.”

If it wasn’t for federal aid geared toward smaller and mid-sized companies like his, and the work done by the National Association of Theater Owners, he’s not sure how he would've survived. Although “A Streetcar Named Desire” warns against depending on the “kindness of strangers”, he says, that’s just what came through in the end or the theater wouldn’t be open today.

During the height of the pandemic, Jacobson's had opportunities to also give back. While the theater was closed, he contributed its stash of cleaning supplies to aid the city's emergency paramedics. Looking to help increase COVID-19 safety across the city, The Phoenix State Wayne donated 500 movie tickets to the city for residents who got vaccinated.

Despite nearly two years of financial challenges, December was the biggest month yet for The State Wayne and Phoenix Theaters in general. This was thanks to “Spiderman: No Way Home” and “Sing 2”, he says. Though business has been slower since the new year, there are big movie releases on the horizon and Jacobson continues to be inspired. 

“We’re readying ourselves for the next 75 years," he says. "I won’t be here, but I want to leave this building in better condition than I received it for another generation of people. After all this time, people are still coming to this business to do what they did 75 years ago. It’s a constant in an ever changing universe and I think there’s something comforting about that to people,” he says. “It comforts me.”

The Phoenix State Wayne hopes to celebrate its 75th anniversary this spring with a community party that welcomes back employees from each of its seven decades. You can read more about the theater's history on its anniversary page.

Photo: Steve Koss.
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