A new, semi-regular column here at World Cinema Paradise, “Movie-Watching Memories” will feature short articles by our columnists sharing memories of their hard-top movie theaters, drive-ins, home video experiences, special screenings and other movie-viewing experiences.
The Quo Vadis by Stuart Galbraith IV
Westland, Michigan, USA
There were surely better places to see a movie, but none was as bizarrely fascinating as the Quo Vadis Theater, located at 7420 Wayne Road near Warren Road in the suburban Detroit working class City of Westland.
The theater was built by the Wayne Amusement Co. theater chain and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the famous architect best known for the ill-fated World Trade Center. The over-emphatically glitzy, modern, and vaguely Romanistic Quo, at its peak, was a labyrinthine wonder. Decked out in aqua blue and gold title, the 1,200-seat ground-floor auditorium, twinned in 1970, opened with the Doris Day comedy The Glass-Bottom Boat. The lobby was decorated with framed, all-star color portraits from various MGM anniversary events, as well as numerous seven-feet-tall Oscar statuettes. I always wondered if perhaps they were salvaged from some Hollywood junkyard following an Academy Awards show broadcast.
But that was just a taste of things to come. An upper floor, opened in 1968, was planned as a spacious, fancy restaurant, but instead two small theaters, the Penthouse I & II, debuted there in its place. These theaters were highly unusual because instead of the usual house lights during the daytime an automated curtain would slide open to the left or right of the theater-goer, letting harsh sunlight pour in and revealing a floor-to-ceiling glass window providing them a view of busy Wayne Road and the then-new Westland Mall beyond.
The restaurant concept wasn’t entirely abandoned, ether. A small but fully-stocked and perpetually bustling bar greeted patrons at the top of the stairs, and around the corner was the smaller but still-impressive “Over 21 Club,” a Playboy Mansion-styled hangout, where nighttime patrons could don headphones and watch movies playing at the adjacent Algiers Drive-In, also operated by Wayne Amusements. Sadly, a proposed third-floor rooftop beer garden theater, seating 1,000 people, was never realized.
I have both fond and sad memories of the Quo Vadis. They were pretty lax about enforcing the Under 17 Not Admitted without a Parent or Guardian rule applying to R-rated films, nor were they very diligent about making sure these same teenagers didn’t buy one ticket and freely move from one screen to another. I did this numerous times myself only to get pinched once, I think it was during the middle of Caddyshack. Fortunately I had the foresight to grab off the sticky floor a batch of ticket stubs left by paying customers. The angry usher went back to the box-office for a few minutes after I randomly produced one of these, and when he returned instead of giving me and my pal the old heave-ho instead apologized profusely for disturbing us. I still feel a bit guilty about that.
I more than made up for that bit of larceny buying actual tickets to many movies there. I recall a particularly memorable afternoon watching Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, a film that so impressed me that I went back to see it again that evening.
Sadly, the Quo Vadis holds one other memory I feel duty-bound to report. When I was a 9th grade junior high school student, I had a teacher that, quite unlike my parents, nurtured my growing interest in film. A movie fan himself, Fred Ochs opened the minds of his students by frequently showing short films on the 16mm Bell & Howell projectors used in those days. It was in his class that I first experienced the short films of animator-filmmaker Norman McLaren and other movies from the National Film Board of Canada. It’s where I first saw title designer Saul Bass’s Academy Award-winning short Why Man Creates and the early efforts of Claymation pioneer Will Vinton. Ochs encouraged my own, furtive attempts at filmmaking, then in Super-8 format, one of which became an end-of-semester project. I finished editing movie later than expected, but he graciously allowed me to bring it in a week or so after the semester had ended and gave me full credit for my labors.
Then, over the summer he and his wife decided to take in a movie at the Quo Vadis, only to be struck and killed by a car on busy Wayne Road as they attempted to cross the street. They left behind, I think, three children.
Over time, the Quo’s screens were sub-divided and sub-divided again. Eventually the smallest one, built in place of the by-this-point-closed Over 21 Club, wasn’t much bigger than my home theater is now. The last movie I saw there was Mel Brooks’s Life Stinks (on assignment from The Ann Arbor News), two years before I moved to Los Angeles, and that pretty much describes how I felt when the Quo Vadis shuttered for good in January 2002. It sat empty for years before finally being torn down in 2002, and when I Google Mapped it for this article, I was depressed to find a vacuous, vacant lot in its place. Quo Vadis?