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Although a bit early yet, I figured I'd start my normally annual thread to document the construction and operation of my annual Christmas layout in the orchestra pit of the historic 1928 Redford Theatre in Detroit, MI.

https://redfordtheatre.com

For those that may not know (or remember), for the past 10 or so years, I've been constructing an annual Christmas layout at the Redford Theatre which is generally on display at our shows between the beginning of December and usually late February or early March depending on when we find the time to take it all down again.  Our 2019 layout was taken down in February of 2020 and by the spring of 2020, our doors were closed due to Covid.  Although we were hopeful to be back to operating through our normally busy 2020 Christmas season, we decided to put aside plans for the train display which was ultimately a good idea since we were ultimately closed for several months beyond that point.  We've been reopened for a few months now and although money is still tight and crowds small, our loyal patrons are doing what they can to keep our organization afloat.  For that reason, we decided to move ahead with plans to put the Christmas layout together this year.  Although we're not out of the water yet, it'll be nice to see something normal return again.

The Redford Theatre is owned and operated by the all volunteer staff of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society, who purchased the building along with its original 1928 Barton theater pipe organ in the mid-1970s with the goal of preserving and presenting the instrument in its original setting.  Although there are quite a number of theater organs from the silent film era still in existence (many of which have returned to theaters), very, very few are in the buildings for which they were originally designed.  The Redford organ is one of only two in Detroit that can brag on that point (the Fox Theater being the other, which is no longer regularly played).  The building itself was built as an atmospheric type theater to serve the neighborhood residents of Redford (this portion was later annexed into Detroit), which gave patrons the feeling of sitting under a starry night sky in a Japanese garden.  Most theaters of the day had elaborate styling in their interiors as walking in the building was supposed to be as much of an event as the movie itself.  All of this was covered over by paint or other means at the beginning of World War II due to the anti-Japanese feelings that were prevalent throughout that time period.  Beyond that, further updates and modernizations were completed, further distancing the building from its original styling.  By the 1980s, the MCTOS began restoring the building back to its original splendor and it's been ongoing ever since, all through volunteer efforts (or contractors paid for by donations) and supported by a regular showing of classic films and other events to maintain a steady income.  

A group of volunteers added a large scale model train display to the annual Christmas decorations which became a popular and ever-growing attraction over the decades that it was assembled. By about 2008 (for various reasons), the volunteer group was unable to construct the display any longer.  A local Boy Scout troop filled in with their modular HO scale layout for several years which was nice in its own right, however it simply didn't have the same holiday appeal that the large scale layout did.  In 2011 I took on the tradition and converted it to O gauge with ceramic Christmas village buildings.  Initially it was a fairly small and not overly populated 8'x12' display with minimal trains running.  It has grown to about 8'x20' and through various donations and other contributions it has become far more elaborate (and reliable) than I would have expected during my first attempt.  Although it's still not quite as big as the original large scale layout, I'd say we're pretty well on par with the detail work and functionality.  Most importantly, it keeps thousands of patrons happy every year, with quite a number of them proclaiming that they come to the holiday shows just for the trains.

Here are some YouTube videos from past years to hopefully prime the pump for the grand return of this annual tradition.  Although I thoroughly enjoyed a season off from the strain of doing the display, I'm looking forward to another season.

Tonight will mark the start of the project as we're going to visit the theater to do an initial cleanup and inventory of our supplies to try to help remember where we left things when the last layout came down in 2020.

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Thanks for the supportive comments!

A couple evenings of work and things are already coming together!

Monday evening was spent disassembling the existing platforms and rebuilding them with a bit more structural integrity. In past years they've been set up on cinder block pilings. This is fine for our train displays and temporary use for a live show here and there. The theater has increasingly made use of the platforms as an extension of the stage when the trains aren't utilizing them so I decided that something needed to be done to make the whole thing sturdier and most importantly for our purposes, more level and flat across the table surface. We managed to accomplish all of that.

Tuesday evening was spent laying down our white painted masonite sheets over the top of all of the platforms. In years past these panels served two purposes. They evened out the bumps that generally turned up at the joints between all of the 4'x8' tabletops and the white paint serves as a better backdrop for the snow material to make it more vibrant vs just laying it down over the black painted stage platforms. With all of our reconstruction work, the tables are about as flat as we're ever going to get them and it's a nice smooth surface all the way across the entire thing. Now our panels simply serve as a nicer backing for our snow material. I'm excited about this part because we had a number of trains donated a couple of years back that we ultimately haven't been able to run due to them being picky when running over the uneven tabletops. Track related derailments should be a thing of the past now!

Track was also sorted out and laid down in the approximate location that it will eventually be mounted. I learned several years ago to install Christmas light strings across the tabletops anywhere there isn't track running through. The backlit snow helps to illuminate the exteriors of the buildings and other details in an area of the theater that is very dim due to the indirect house lighting (it's an "atmospheric theater" designed to make patrons feel as though they're outside under a starry night sky). The track gets temporarily laid down as a guide so that I can install the lights without any ending up beneath the track sections. Once the lights are installed next week we'll pull the track back up, lay the snow material down and reinstall it all over again with screws to keep it in place. From there we can begin wiring the track and placing buildings/figurines. Certainly not difficult work, but quite time consuming and tedious.

New structure beneath the platforms

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Track laid on the main level to facilitate installation of the Christmas light strings. The upper platforms retain their lights, snow and track while stored during the off-season since they're only used for the train layout. This saves quite a bit of work every year aside from having to replace the snow material every few years as it gets quite dusty/dirty in the theater over time.

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Life has been busy so this is a bit of a delayed update, but things have been slowly progressing at the Redford Theatre. We took a week off since I came down with a mild cold a couple weeks back, however last week I knocked out one of the more time consuming parts of the layout by installing the light strings for backlighting the snow. It's not exactly a difficult job, but it is one that requires rather meticulous work to ensure that they look fairly even when the snow is laid down on top.

Tonight we'll pull the track back up, place the snow material down over the lights and then do a final install of the track on top after I fix some feed wire solder connections on a few track sections. After that we should be about ready to move on to unpacking and placing buildings and other accessories.

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Some more progress made last night and it's looking a bit more like a village now.  We jumped a little ahead of where I planned since I had help on hand to get the buildings unboxed and on the layout.  Normally I ensure the trains run first, but I haven't had a chance to finish the wiring yet so I'll have to work around the buildings when I get back to that next week.  I figured it was best to use the help I had while it was available.  From there, the buildings need their bulbs installed and I need to install the smaller detail items and accessories to fill in around them which certainly sounds simple on paper...  Although there are more buildings than ever on the layout this year, its surprising how empty things still look without all the figurines, trees, vehicles, etc.  



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Things are getting bright... The buildings are lit as of this evening. Power feeds to all of the street lamps were connected and dropped through the table and I'll work on connecting them to power tomorrow. There's still quite a lot of detailing work to do and wiring to clean up, but all of the tracks are functional and things are shaping up for its unveiling at the first movie of the weekend on Friday evening.

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Thanks!  This would have been the 10th one I've done had it not been for our unexpected season off last year.

Further progress since it's too late to turn back now... once the details start to fill in, I can't cover the layout up any longer as I normally do while it is in progress and we need to bring it to a point of completion to at least make it presentable during our shows. That said, we nearly finished everything up last night. It will be shown for the first time for the movie being shown this Friday evening with a week to spare before our first Christmas movies hit the screen. I'll be spending most of my day off on Friday doing final cleanup work such as tidying up/covering some wires, installing the table skirting, unpacking and testing the trains and perhaps wiring in a couple more lighted accessories. Overall though, I'd say it's turning out to be the best one yet!

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@NeophyteMRR posted:

I saw Gone With the Wind there forty years ago when we lived on Auburn near Grand River.  Nice to see theater is still open and even nicer to hear there is a layout.  I might have to come check you out.  Thank you for sharing.

The theater has come a very long way in 40 years and the neighborhood directly around it has seen slow but steady improvements over the past decade.  Definitely come check it out!

The layout made its first public runs for our patrons last night. It definitely wasn't a big crowd (our crowd sizes have taken quite a hit during the pandemic) but everybody that was there seemed to thoroughly enjoy the display.  Even more folks that weren't there have been inquiring about its presence, so I'm sure we'll see more for our upcoming Christmas shows. There are still a couple of minor accessory things that I plan to wire in when time allows, but aside from that it was pretty much fully finished with a couple hours to spare before the show. It was nice getting to sit back and enjoy it for awhile before the doors opened for once. Typically I'm rushing right up until the last minute to wrap things up. 😁

Here's a bit of an overview video of the layout that I put together, although the little details don't show up very well.

Last edited by SantaFe158
@SantaFe158 posted:

The layout made its first public runs for our patrons last night. It definitely wasn't a big crowd (our crowd sizes have taken quite a hit during the pandemic) but everybody that was there seemed to thoroughly enjoy the display.  Even more folks that weren't there have been inquiring about its presence, so I'm sure we'll see more for our upcoming Christmas shows. There are still a couple of minor accessory things that I plan to wire in when time allows, but aside from that it was pretty much fully finished with a couple hours to spare before the show. It was nice getting to sit back and enjoy it for awhile before the doors opened for once. Typically I'm rushing right up until the last minute to wrap things up. 😁

I lived nearby in the early 1950s; my father taught at Redford High School. I think I saw "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" at the Redford Theater—scared the crap out of me. (I was maybe 6 or 7, went with my older brother).

I really enjoyed the article about the movie house and the train setup in Classic Toy Trains for January, 2020. I've lived in NYC since 1956, no way I could ever see the layout now, but thanks for the videos! Here's the Redford Theater I remember:

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I lived nearby in the early 1950s; my father taught at Redford High School. I think I saw "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" at the Redford Theater—scared the crap out of me. (I was maybe 6 or 7, went with my older brother).

I really enjoyed the article about the movie house and the train setup in Classic Toy Trains for January, 2020. I've lived in NYC since 1956, no way I could ever see the layout now, but thanks for the videos! Here's the Redford Theater I remember:

Thanks!  The exterior of the theater is still more or less as your picture shows it although improvements through restoration are slowly being made as money allows.  The interior thankfully is no longer as you likely recall and has been returned back to pretty close to its original state.  "Updates" during and after World War Two had done a number on the place and it wasn't even a shadow of its former self when our group began restoration efforts 35 years ago.

@SantaFe158 posted:

Thanks!  The exterior of the theater is still more or less as your picture shows it although improvements through restoration are slowly being made as money allows.  The interior thankfully is no longer as you likely recall and has been returned back to pretty close to its original state.  "Updates" during and after World War Two had done a number on the place and it wasn't even a shadow of its former self when our group began restoration efforts 35 years ago.

I understand all the supposedly hateful Japanese-themed interiors were covered over and/or demolished during WW2. I can barely remember what the place looked like. I was in SE Michigan to see my brother and visit my father's gravesite, I think in 1976. And my last visit to the area was maybe 5-6 years ago, when plans were announced to demolish Redford High School and replace it with a Meier's. Here's a photo of my Dad at Redford—he was a teacher and coach, when the school was whites only:

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I understand all the supposedly hateful Japanese-themed interiors were covered over and/or demolished during WW2. I can barely remember what the place looked like. I was in SE Michigan to see my brother and visit my father's gravesite, I think in 1976. And my last visit to the area was maybe 5-6 years ago, when plans were announced to demolish Redford High School and replace it with a Meier's. Here's a photo of my Dad at Redford—he was a teacher and coach, when the school was whites only:

Unfortunately it was the other way around.  Hatred towards Japanese culture during WW2 led to the owners of the theater painting over or covering everything within the theater to avoid a loss of business.  The Motor City Theater Organ Society members have been painstakingly restoring it back to the pre-WW2 condition ever since the mid-1980s.

There aren't too many places where O gauge trains run in a Japanese garden beneath a "starry night sky"

Really cool Jake, great display. Love the night running with all the lights, that's fantastic!

I have a suggestion for next year.  I suspect these are all running conventional mode, right?  You might add a little automation to occasionally honk the horns occasionally, it would be pretty easy to accomplish.

Another idea might be to add a decorated Christmas car or two with lights.

I understand all the supposedly hateful Japanese-themed interiors were covered over and/or demolished during WW2. I can barely remember what the place looked like. I was in SE Michigan to see my brother and visit my father's gravesite, I think in 1976. And my last visit to the area was maybe 5-6 years ago, when plans were announced to demolish Redford High School and replace it with a Meier's. Here's a photo of my Dad at Redford—he was a teacher and coach, when the school was whites only:



In the early 70's and for many years thereafter I lived in that area.  So I know the school and theater very well.  Your statement about whites only isn't 100% accurate as there were many non whites attending.  It was a public school so it simply reflected the neighborhood at the time.    Shame that the building was torn down as it had been added onto with a new wing.

My barber Paul was next door to the theater and I'd see him every few weeks for a great hair cut.  He is still cutting hair I understand though I believe he's well into his eighties.   

The restoration team at the theater has done a stupendous job.  The layout is great.  Hope to see it this season as I'm not that far away.  They have some great shows lined up.

Last edited by Allegheny

Thanks guys!

John, an automated horn wouldn't be a bad idea for the future.  I'll have to add it to my long list of future plans .  The layout generally runs in a sort of "auto" mode where the power is turned on and off through the theater's light board.  As a result, everything is indeed conventional under normal conditions.  We do have a Legacy Base wired in for when we decide to put it into "manual mode" and run trains ourselves during the shows.  That's typically the only time we run anything with sound.  

I have a couple of the great MTH Christmas flat cars with the lit trees on either end, but I'm a bit greedy and enjoy running them under my tree at home too much to leave them there.  I generally bring them along if I take anything to run in person though.  I definitely wouldn't mind picking up a couple more of those at some point as they're some of my favorites.

Skip, thanks for the compliment.  That's certainly one of the things I like most about doing this display.  Although I enjoy the comments/compliments received when I share progress reports on various forums and social media, the true satisfaction is seeing the enjoyment our patrons get out of seeing it.  We've had people asking for weeks as to whether or not we'd be resurrecting the display this year after taking last year off.  Although we're not out of the woods with Covid yet, I think it's been nice to have at least one aspect of our normal life back for a little while.

Kazar, please feel free to swing by for a show.  The layout is generally up well past Christmas also so you'll have some time to see it yet.  Paul unfortunately was finally forced into retirement due to his declining health a couple of years ago.  He was certainly an institution in the neighborhood.  We're now renting the space his shop was in to a young woman who is continuing to run it as a barber/salon type of business.

@SantaFe158 posted:


Kazar, please feel free to swing by for a show.  The layout is generally up well past Christmas also so you'll have some time to see it yet.  Paul unfortunately was finally forced into retirement due to his declining health a couple of years ago.  He was certainly an institution in the neighborhood.  We're now renting the space his shop was in to a young woman who is continuing to run it as a barber/salon type of business.

Jake thanks for the update.  I haven't been to the theater since Christmas of 2019.     

Didn't realize Paul was retired.  I hope he is enjoying his place as he had a large piece of acreage (from what I recall him telling me).   As you know he was a bit ornery at times as it had to be his way or else!!!

My friend Tony (formerly of Tony's Mower Shop and Trains) will swing by to say hello.  Just let me know when you'll be around and we'll try to make down there while you are in.

The layout looks great a usual.  Keep up the good work.

Last edited by Allegheny

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