The Way It Was – RKO Uptown

The theater was a neighborhood staple
RKO Uptown
Photograph courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

1938 Long before the advent of the internet, Netflix, video games, and other digital distractions, the neighborhood theater served as a chief entertainment source. For children, Saturday afternoons meant spending hours entranced before the silver screen.

Here is the old RKO Uptown in Highland Park, on Woodward just south of Six Mile (or McNichols, which few Detroiters or Highland Parkers ever called it). The marquee is showcasing San Francisco, with Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, and The Bride Walks Out, with Barbara Stanwyck. The venue was called the RKO Uptown to distinguish it from its big sister, the RKO Downtown, which had originally opened as the Oriental, in 1927. The RKO Uptown opened in 1927 as well, and was originally devoted to vaudeville, though in short order films became the main event. In 1954, it became the 6 Mile Uptown, then in 1959, the theater’s name was shortened simply to the 6 Mile. Neighborhood theaters were usually much smaller than the downtown palaces, but the 6 Mile was no shoebox, seating over 2,500.

This writer recalls countless hours perched transfixed in his seat, transported to fantastic worlds in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! starring the Beatles (punctuated by piercing screams from smitten teenage girls) and thrillers like Ten Little Indians and I Saw What You Did. He even suffered through the juvenile Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, but it beat staying home.

There were other theaters nearby: the Krim, just south of the 6 Mile that showed mostly foreign or “art” films, and the Palmer Park to the west on Hamilton, but the 6 Mile seemed to be the only one that catered to kids on Saturdays. That’s ironic, because it wasn’t long before Highland Park and north Detroit became the Tenderloin District, and both the 6 Mile and the Krim started screening dirty movies. The 6 Mile eventually closed its doors and was demolished, but mental images of its phantom marquee lights usher back an earlier, more tender era.