A dedicated group of movie lovers are keeping a piece of Detroit’s past vibrant and relevant for all generations

Built in Detroit’s most dynamic architectural period, the impeccable Redford Theatre approaches its 90th birthday in grand health and style, a symbol of how a dedicated group of history-loving individuals can keep a piece of the city’s past vibrant and relevant for all generations.   

Dedicated to the point of obsession, the Motor City Theatre Organ Society over the past four decades has led an all-volunteer effort to keep the Redford open to the public. Drawn by its Barton organ, a golden goddess installed when it opened as the “Kunsky-Redford” in 1928, volunteers including John Lauter, Liam Neary and dozens of others have patched carpet, chased leaks, fought with city hall, struggled with grants and devoted themselves to this neighborhood playhouse-turned-movie-theater.

“We do it the Detroit way – one paycheck at a time,” said Lauter, longtime Redford organist whose solos are as legendary as the theater itself. “I call the Redford the ultimate experiment – we ended up in the theater business, something we as a group didn’t know a lot about. The question now is how long can we keep this going? It’s been an incredible 40 years so far.”

The Redford, as Lauter and Neary will tell you, is held together with every $5 ticket sold to a wide-eyed movie lover; every hand-made exit sign; every donated piece of theater equipment; every signature of the celebrities who have visited and even the ghostly charm of Sarah, the young girl said to haunt the seven-story theater. Neary, who is clearly besotted with the Redford, says the effort to maintain a nearly century-old building can feel exhausting.

“It’s obviously a labor of love. My wife calls this theater my mistress,” Neary says. “We have eight managers, and we all take turns. We have no paid employees at all. We all have three or four ‘jobs’ here. I’m the CFO, the purchasing agent, the one the maintenance staff calls at 8 a.m. when we need a new pipe.”

Yet the moment you pass through the three-story grand foyer, the velvet curtain is drawn, the state’s largest continually used American flag is unfurled and that Barton organ begins its weekend recital, Neary and everyone else in the Redford’s 1,610 seats relaxes into its royal blue wood chairs, watches the twinkling stars and clouds on the ceiling drift by and awaits with child-like anticipation for the movie to, once again, begin.

If you adore Detroit’s architectural might – its massive Kahn factories, its elegant Yamasaki skyscrapers, its sleek Saarnin centers and its expressive Rowland offices – then Neary’s tour of the Redford’s incredible interior, his stories of its decline, and its slow crawl back to its original beauty, is a must. The Redford, the jewel in the theater portfolio of John H. Kunsky, lives among giants such as the Fox Theatre as serving as entertainment palaces for Detroit’s growing population, eager to escape the soot and heat of a city known for sweat, industry, and hard work.

The Redford got its distinctive looks, flexible design, and massive seven-story stage from the Detroit architectural firm of Verner, Wilhelm & Molby, known for designing schools and other solid facilities. The Redford was its only theater, and its built to last. Kunsky wanted quality, and he got it. In fact, the theater’s original Carrier air conditioners – lovingly nicknamed Thelma and Louise – are still operational.

Kunsky was “quite an entrepreneur,” operating a dozen other theaters in Metro Detroit, Neary says. Kunsky saw the Redford’s home at Lahser Road just north of Grand River Avenue as the epicenter of Detroit, and he hoped to make his theater a distinctive landmark. The red-brick structure has a two-story front with a red-and-yellow enameled metal marquee and windows surrounded with Corinthian heads, swags, and comedy-tragedy masks.

Inside, its unique design with Japanese themes of delicate pagodas, mighty Mount Fuji paintings, feminine geisha girls and menacing samurai says something of its era – although it would prove disastrous soon enough. The Redford is what is known as an atmospheric theatre, a design that emphasizes the stage, exotic themes, and dramatic ceilings where hidden projectors recreate a moody cloudy night.

By the early 1940s, the United States was at war with Japan, and all of those cherry blossoms were eliminated by what eventually would be eight coats of paint. When Neary arrived along with the Detroit Theatre Organ Club, then-owners, the Goldberg twins, turned the walls into cell blocks to imitate the mobster movies that were popular at the time. The Goldbergs also tore out more than 200 of the theater’s original seats, replaced most of its remaining seats with chairs from their other theaters, and covered up the beloved Barton organ.

After a riotous meeting, the Detroit Theatre Organ Club agreed to buy the Redford from the Goldberg family, mostly to preserve its “golden-throated” musical instrument. Specially tuned to fill the Redford, the “Lady Barton” provided the motivation – now, the volunteers who remained on board with running a movie theater set out to revive its faded beauty.

The group added a used projector, creating a classic movie series that allowed them the steady income to start renovating the theater. They found Asian-inspired chandeliers from the same era of the Redford in another theater and added them to the restoration efforts. Carefully, volunteers removed walls to find the decorative plaster work that hid the organ’s chambers. New carpet came in, taking out its patchy ancestor.

The next step was to remove layer after layer of paint, revealing decorative stencils, maple wood railings and marble moldings. In hopes of restoring its Japanese theme, volunteers visited the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical area to find original photos of the Redford. The once-bashful geishas were brought back to life, and Mount Fuji again towers over the ever-growing audiences.

Year by year, dollar by dollar, volunteer by volunteer, the Redford’s original elements are either found, replaced, reproduced or created. The original wall scones add a warm glow. A faithful movie regular made stained-glass exit signs. One exit sign now contains a small container of ashes of a longtime volunteer named Ethel. Leary, one of her dear friends, says he will someday join her.

 

“If someday you come in and there’s another little vessel in the corner, that will be me,” he notes.

The Barton organ also received a Cinderella-worthy makeover during these decades of work. Every nook is polished, every key is clean. The top and sides are restored so that the beloved grand instrument looks new again. Although you should never ask a lady her age, the Barton hardly looks like a nonagenarian. With its massive pipes tuned, the lady can belt out a song just as well as she ever did, Neary says.

Despite its age, the Redford has all the latest technology, including a digital projector, the best sound system, and a high-end stage system. To raise the curtain, all you need to do is press a button – and, if you’re lucky, Neary will let you do it (along with a soft-shoe performance on stage). But the Redford can still play film, and it revels in showing off movies from The Wizard of Oz to The Sandlot to The Big Lebowski this summer alone.

Although its renovation will never be complete, Neary and the other volunteers stand proud when traveling theater groups, weddings, rock bands and more come calling to use the Redford as its venue.

“You know how much maintenance a 90-year-old building needs? A ton. We started off many years ago with just two or three people. Now we have about 12 fabulous maintenance people. We have a master electrician, a master boiler guy, plumbers galore. Nothing stops them.”

No matter what the Redford needs – more paint, another light, more plaster – its volunteers will be there.

“I love this theater,” Neary sighs.