Reel History: The Redford Theatre

Modern movie theatres aren’t so much theatres anymore as they are entertainment megaplexes offering any number of additional distractions beyond the simple movie-going experience, from leather seats the size of La-Z-Boys that vibrate to bars and bowling alleys. But the Redford Theatre in Detroit’s northwest corner (in the Old Redford neighborhood, bordering Redford Township) has been running the “show” in the exact same way since 1928.
 
The Redford Theatre was built in 1928 and has always -- and continuously -- operated as a movie theatre. It houses an original Barton Theatre Pipe Organ, a historic instrument made by the Ann Arbor-based Barton Organ Company and one of only about 250 that were manufactured during the company’s production period during the age of silent films (it closed in 1931). Only 8 or 9 Barton organs still exist in the country today. 
 
The 1960s saw a nostalgic resurgence in the popularity of organ concerts, and during that time the Motor City Theatre Organ Society would rent out the Redford Theatre and sell out the house – all 1,571 seats. When the family that owned the Redford decided they wanted to sell it in 1974, they gave the Motor City Theatre Organ Society the option to buy it. By 1977 the Organ Society owned it outright and has run it ever since. 
 
When the city’s population was at its peak, Old Redford was a thriving neighborhood. After decades of decline, the neighborhood that remains is a shadow of what it once was, the kind of area politely described as “not the best.” But the Redford Theatre is a cornerstone of the community, and has stayed open and continued to be a destination all this time by sheer force of will on behalf of passionate volunteers.
 
“Many of these members [of the Organ Society] have been members for 40 years,” explains Linda Sites, Publicity Chairperson for the Redford Theatre and the Motor City Theatre Organ Society. “[We] have [fewer] than 100 people who are maintaining the building and the theatre. The guys who run the projection booth have given up every weekend for the past 25 years.”
 
Volunteers with the Redford make a life-long commitment, whether that was their original intention or not. Peggy, who does all of the theatre’s booking, now lives in an assisted living home and is no longer able to visit the theatre. Yet she continues to book all of the shows – by hand (she doesn’t own a computer) – by calling Warner, Paramount, Universal and MGM directly. “She just calls [the studios] and says, ‘It’s Peggy from the Redford,’ and they know who she is!”
 
One concern Sites notes is about the volunteers themselves. As they “age out,” who will take their place? The Redford is wholly dependent upon its volunteer base to successfully operate; a shortage of money and manpower would threaten the future of the theater. 
 
“Our goal is to be able to turn the keys over to young people that we can entrust,” she says. They will soon be launching a new capital campaign called Stairway to the Stars, which in addition to being a fundraiser will also be an effort to recruit volunteers. Sites says that if they can get 20 people to commit to just one Saturday a month cleaning the lobby or taking tickets or any number of other small jobs then they will be in a much stronger position. The theatre is also going through its final phases of restoration work (restoring the original Japanese motif that was painted and paneled over during the anti-Japanese backlash during WWII), all of it done by volunteers.
 
But it’s not just about the volunteers. In order for the theatre to operate, audiences actually have to show up. 
 
“We rely on the good will of local papers – the Free Press, Observer & Eccentric, Metro Times – people who are fans of the theatre and appreciate what we’re doing. It’s really a consortium of efforts.” Which includes everything from a 70-year-old volunteer handing out flyers downtown to Facebook promotion, email blasts and word of mouth.
 
The goal of the Redford is to bring classic films and organ music to the public at a very low cost (usually $4). The candy counter is also a unique attribute of the Redford: they have 65 varieties of candy including Necco wafers, chips and even diabetic candy, plus they use real butter on their popcorn. And there’s no heinous concessions markup like at every other theatre – a popcorn, soda and candy bar will cost you $6.50.
 
The Redford is part of the Old Redford Business Association and they also own the two buildings attached to the theatre which they rent to business owners. They are very much a part of their community and are very supportive of it. 
 
“Businesses have started up and are making a go of it because of the business we’ve brought in,” Sites states. Each film has a 30-minute organ preview concert as well as a 20-minute intermission accompanied by organ music during which time guests might visit nearby businesses like Motor City Java House for a coffee or Sweet Potato Sensations for a treat. 
 
The Redford also offers a unique destination in a part of the city that might not otherwise see a significant amount of outside traffic. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and has recently proven to be a draw for some major events. Director Kevin Smith brought his live production Jay and Silent Bob Get Old! to the Redford this past April. Comedy troupe the Trailer Park Boys had a show in the theatre in 2010, and indie pop group the Magnetic Fields will play there November 15. They also rent the theatre for private events and hosted three weddings there this year. 
 
And then there are some special events the Redford hosts themselves. “Occasionally we try to do something extra special for our patrons when we can,” Sites says. On September 28-29, actress Tippi Hedren will be at the Redford for a special screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, her most famous role (which is very much Hitchcock’s doing … there’s quite the scandalous story about how he tried – and succeeded – to ruin her career after she refused to accept his inappropriate and aggressive advances). Hedren will be signing autographs and taking photos, and she will also be doing some Q&A with the audience and sharing some memories of making the film. She’ll be ushered into the theatre in a 1976 Cadillac El Dorado limo chauffeured by one of the theatre’s volunteers (who also owns the car). This special event is only $5 to attend.
 
The Redford is open every other weekend (aside from special events). For upcoming shows visit their website at http://redfordtheatre.com


All Photos by David Lewinski Photography