Michigan is home to many historical movie theatres and quite a few are still in operation. These theatres are time machines, taking the audience back to a time when people went to the movies every week, when movies were 25 cents or less and television hadn’t been invented. The majority of the theatres are pre-WWII, designed in the art deco style with neon lights and grand marquees. The historic architecture adds to the show and the overall experience vs. modern movie theatres that have little or no architecture value. A number of the movie theatres on this list were designed by C. Howard Crane, well-known architect who designed Detroit’s Fox Theatre and Olympia Stadium, first home of the Detroit Red Wings. C. Howard Crane designed 62 movie theatres for the Detroit metro area alone. Today, only a few remain. Take a step into the past and enjoy the show as I visit historic Michigan movie theatres.
Royal Oak Landmark Main Art Theatre
Located in the heart of the action in downtown Royal Oak, the Landmark Main Art Theatre shows independent, foreign and cult classic movies every afternoon and evening. The theatre opened in 1941 as an 800-seat theatre. In 1983, the theatre was broken up into two theatres. It was again broken up in 1993 into three theatres. A few years ago, I went to a midnight showing of The Room, a cult (hysterically-bad) classic and we were graced by the creator, Tommy Wiseau’s presence. If you aren’t familiar with The Room, it is a movie that is so bad that it is hilarious. If you haven’t heard of The Room, you might have heard of The Disaster Artist, a legitimate movie about the making of The Room. At showings like this one, there are traditions that come with the movie – it is more a viewing experience than just watching a movie quietly. For example, while making the movie, picture frames were bought for the set, but the stock pictures they came with them weren’t replaced with actual pictures. The stock pictures in these frames were of spoons and can be easily seen in the movie. So, any time the spoons in the picture frames appear on screen, people yell, “Spoons!” and throw spoons at the screen or in the air. There are many other traditions and shenanigans throughout the movie.
For your foreign, independent and cult films, head to the Royal Oak’s Landmark Main Art Theatre.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2022:
As of July of 2022, the Main Art Theatre has been demolished. On this site, developers are building a five story mixed use building, at this prime location in downtown Royal Oak. The Theatre closed in April 2021 due to reduced audiences from Covid lock downs.
On Old Woodward Avenue (original Woodward) in downtown Birmingham, you will find the beautiful Birmingham 8 Theatre. The theatre was built in 1926 and opened in 1927. It was designed in the French Renaissance style. Much of the exterior of the building appears as it did in 1927. It was originally built as a single auditorium theatre with 1,250 seats. The theatre closed in 1994 but reopened in 1996 converted into eight smaller screen auditoriums. The seating capacity of the eight theatres ranges from 26-140 seats. The Birmingham 8 is a modern theatre in the shell of a historic theatre. You will find first-run movies, large-leather-power reclining chairs, modern digital projectors and updated sound systems. When I went, I saw Knives Out, a great murder mystery. There is plenty of parking located at a parking garage a short walk from the theatre. Enjoy your movies with all the modern conveniences with a taste of the past.
Farmington Civic Theater:
Located in downtown Farmington on Grand River Avenue the Farmington Civic Theater is a classic example of an Art Modern Style movie theatre, with its neon lights and brightly lit arcade. The theatre first opened in 1940, designed by C. Howard Crane, designer of the Fox Theatre in Detroit. In 1990, the upper balcony was converted into a second theatre. Today, the ground floor theatre has seating for 275 and the upper theatre has 132 seats. On the second floor, there is also a small museum about the theatre’s history, including an old film projector. While the building is historic, the movie watching experience is up-to-date. In 2013, the 35 mm projectors were replaced with digital projectors, updated speakers were installed with modern and comfortable seats. The Civic Theater shows movies every afternoon and evening. The theatre shows relatively new movies. I saw Ford vs. Ferrari in January when it had been out for a few months. The Civic Theatre has been voted best movie theatre in metro Detroit for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019 by the local NBC affiliate in Detroit. A few notes for you if you go: it is a cash-only business, the concession prices are similar to other movie theatres and parking is available behind the theater and other shops downtown. See a movie in a time machine at the Farmington Civic Theater.
The now defunct Shores Theatre has called St. Clair Shores home since 1938. The theatre has been closed and abandoned now for about 10 years, but the original marquee remains. Based on the size, the Shores Theatre appears to have had one screen as a neighborhood theatre. As it stands as I write this, a local businessman has plans to turn the theatre into a bar and restaurant with live entertainment. He also plans to keep and restore the original marquee. Hopefully in the next few years we will see the Shores Theatre given new life.
On Detroit’s westside (Lahser and Grand River near McNichols), you will find one of the most unusual movie theatres in Michigan. On the outside, The Redford Theatre appears to be a typical movie theatre of its era. Inside is nothing ordinary. The Redford Theatre has the most elegant interiors I have ever seen at a movie theatre. The interior is in a medieval Japanese motif. At the front of the theatre, where the screen is located, there is a façade of three Japanese buildings facing the audience. The largest façade is center stage with a curtain containing the screen, flanked by smaller buildings on either side. The façade is meant to look like an outdoor Japanese garden theatre. Above the buildings, the ceiling is rounded and meant to look like the night sky, painted blue with blue mood lighting, and a few lit stars scattered across the ceiling. I had a hard time fitting the whole façade in one photograph. Frankly, the whole thing reminded me of Disney’s Epcot, it is that good. The theatre opened in 1928 and has been in operation as a single screen theatre ever since. Opening in the era of silent films, organs were a mainstay of movie theatres. Today the theatre still has its original Barton organ, making it one of two theatres in Michigan with its original organ (the other being the Fox Theatre in Downtown Detroit). The theatre has 1,581 seats spread out between the main floor and the upper balcony.
During World War II, the Japanese artwork and motifs were painted over or covered up. In 1977, the American Theatre Organ Society took over operating the theatre as a non-profit and ever since, they have been restoring the Japanese motif and artwork. In 1985, The Redford Theatre was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The theatre shows historic films on its two Norcelo projectors, capable of showing 35 mm and 70 mm films. The showings are on the weekends. Tickets are usually $5 and the concession stand is very reasonable, just remember to bring cash. For $8, I got 2 drinks and a medium popcorn. The theatre has two fenced-in, well-lit parking lots with security watching cars and directing traffic.
My wife and I went Valentine’s day weekend to see the 1942 classic Casablanca. There was a great crowd to see the show, and the audience reacted excellently to the funny lines in the movie. We both enjoyed the show and the theatre. The Redford Theatre is my favorite movie theatre.
The Emerald Theatre originally opened in 1921 as the Macomb Theatre, a grand movie theatre. The theatre was designed by C. Howard Crane, designer of the Fox Theatre in Detroit. The Macomb Theatre showed movies until 1987; since then the theatre has been transformed into a concert venue. The theatre can accommodate 1,620 concert goers with its 23,000 square-foot venue. Since 2000, the theatre has gone through several ownership and name changes. To me, the theatre, the street it’s on and half of downtown Mount Clemens seem like a movie set because half of downtown is empty and there isn’t much life or activity. Mount Clemens would be the perfect location to film a Halloween or horror movie. Ironic that a former movie theatre looks like a movie set.
Looking for a picure of the Academy 59 movie theatre in Waterford Mi on Crecent lake rd.