Give Me That Old Time Theatre Experience – The Redford

(Written by John Lauter of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society for the 95th Anniversary of the Redford Theatre in 2023)

The Redford Theatre was built in 1927 and 1928 by a local consortium out of Plymouth, Michigan for the Kunsky chain, the largest movie theatre operators in Michigan at the time. Kunsky was the Detroit holder of the Paramount/Publix franchise, and this company was owned partly by Balaban & Katz from Chicago.

The theatre was designed by the local architectural firm of Verner, Wilhelm, Molby, RF Shreive architects. To our knowledge, this is the only theatre attributed to this firm. The Redford was designed to emulate an outdoor Japanese theatre, a style known as “atmospheric”. This style was invented by noted New York architect John Eberson, and the Redford could be considered “An Eberson knock-off” . The theatre seated over 2000 when built; today it seats 1550.

The Redford was taken over by the Goldberg family in the 1930’s and operated under their “Community Theatres” company until the fall of 1974. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States entry into WWII, the Japanese décor fell into immediate disfavor and was altered. Other remodeling jobs were done to the interior over the years, including “modernization” to keep up with competition.

In 1974, Community Theatres Inc. decided to discontinue regular operation of the Redford Theatre in the face of rising operating costs and competition from suburban Multiplex Cinemas. In November 1974, the theatre was leased to/by the Motor City Theatre Organ Society (MCTOS), the non-profit group that restored the (Redford) pipe organ in the mid-60s.

MCTOS began in 1964 as an organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the theatre pipe organ, the “one man orchestra” that was installed to provide music for silent movies. MCTOS as a group restored the Redford Barton organ, the Royal Oak theatre Barton organ (now gone), the Punch n’ Judy theatre (gutted for office space in 1985) Wurlitzer organ, and the Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor) Barton. These instruments were all the property of the theatre owners. MCTOS performed all restoration work as a volunteer labor of love and MCTOS paid for all materials used.

MCTOS began presenting shows at these theatres, starting in 1967 at the Redford. These were held on Monday and Tuesday nights, featured a silent film as the lead attraction, accompanied by professional theatre organists, most of whom at the time were veterans of the silent film era and learned that craft at the tail end of that art form. In many cases, the MCTOS shows were the first time anything other than a regular movie showing had occurred in that theatre for decades.

MCTOS operated the Redford Theatre under a rental agreement with Community Theatres after November 1974, beginning modestly with weekend kiddie matinees and rental events. In 1977, the Goldbergs decided it was time for the MCTOS purchase the building. The theatre, office building, storefronts and parking lots were purchased for a negotiated price of $125,000 on a 7-1/2% land contract. The down payment of $40,000 was raised in the summer of that year, our monthly payment was $1400 and there was a balloon payment due at the end of $56,000. MCTOS completed the land contract in 1985, becoming owners.

In 1978, MCTOS members installed 70mm film projectors and initiated a regular bi-weekly classic movie series to sustain the financial obligations of running the building. Organ concerts, silent film screenings, special live shows and rentals became the theatre’s regular fare, and have sustained the operation of the theatre.

The theatre has always been operated by MCTOS as an all-volunteer operation; every job is performed with volunteer labor.

Restoration has been ongoing since 1980, done mainly by volunteers, in small, self-funded increments. A major project was tackled in 2002-2003 with the removal of all main floor seats and lower balcony seats, re-surfacing of the floors, new electrical service to the seats and 1200 new 1928-style replica seats installed. This effort was funded by a State of Michigan grant for $150,000, a federal grant, administered through the City of Detroit in the amount of $50,000 and an additional $70,000 raised by MCTOS from our members and patrons.

The remainder of the auditorium was reseated in 2013. At that time all carpeting was replaced, and new tile was installed in front of the concession stand.

The theatre’s outer lobby began restoration in 2005. Original features that had been obscured by paneling and drop ceilings were uncovered and restored back to their original appearance. Some outside contractors were hired for these major projects. In more recent years, the theatre has taken over one of the storefronts adjacent to the theatre lobby and uses it as a volunteer lounge, meeting space and a new, enlarged office space. The old manager’s office space has been repurposed into a barrier-free restroom.

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