Experiencing Northern Michigan: Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the State Theatre Reopening in Traverse City

Ten years ago last Friday, on November 17, 2007, the fully revived, meticulously designed, lovingly restored State Theatre in Downtown Traverse City opened its doors once more. The marquee sparkled brilliantly against the autumn night, mirroring the starry night installation lighting up the cinema ceiling inside. It’s a renovation story so spectacular you’d think Hollywood (or HGTV) would have scripted the whole history—yet it’s pure Michigan movie magic.

The night sky at the State Theatre installed by NMC instructor and astronomer Jerry Dobek.

Complete with a red carpet along Front Street, the grand reopening of the historic State Theatre that night featured an exciting gala premiere of the film The Kite Runner (based on the bestselling book by Khaled Hosseini) for the once-in-a-lifetime “Starry, Starry Night” event, where several of the film’s actors as well as the book’s author and his wife made appearances. I was there a decade ago covering the story for the student-run White Pine Press at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), and it was an experience I’ll never forget—a revitalizing night for Traverse City that inspired a little town by the bay to realize its big dreams.

The interior of the State Theatre during renovations in fall 2007.

The history of the State Theatre spans a century of tumultuous change. Originally founded in 1916 as the Lyric Theatre, it burnt down in January 1923 before reopening December 20, 1923. The building burnt down again on January 3, 1948, and the State Theatre was then constructed on the Lyric site in a revamped art deco style, reopening on June 30, 1949 with 1,023 seats. It closed for remodeling in September 1978 and eventually closed as a movie theater in April 1996, after which plans for its renovation never came into fruition—until nearly a decade later.

Local author Doug Stanton with director Michael Moore in fall 2007 before the State Theatre’s grand reopening.

In the spring of 2005, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore took interest in the historic theater after meeting with friends to plan the inaugural Traverse City Film Festival, and though many considered a State Theatre revitalization impossible, Moore was fueled by the challenge. The theater was given a general cleaning and tune-up before it became an official venue for the first TCFF that summer. In May 2007, the Grand Traverse Rotary Charities donated the State Theatre to the Traverse City Film Festival, and after undergoing a restoration process involving hundreds of volunteer hours, donated expert services, fundraising, and director Moore’s committed financial support, the State Theatre came back to life thanks to the good work of our Northern Michigan community.

Mural in-the-making by local artist Glenn Wolff in fall 2007 during the State Theatre’s renovation.

The starry night ceiling at the State Theatre was designed and installed by Traverse City’s own Jerry Dobek, astronomer and instructor at NMC. After hundreds of hours perfecting a replica of what the sky in Northern Michigan looks like mid-August, Dobek debuted his masterpiece at the State Theatre’s 2007 grand reopening. In addition, the murals in the lobby of the State Theatre were painted by talented local artist Glenn Wolff (who also painted the murals at the Bijou by the Bay alongside artist Rufus Snoddy) with the assistance of six other painters. Prominently featured in the Traverse City LipDub viral videomade in 2011 with the coordinated help of so many locals (a feat still impressive today)the State Theatre is now a symbol of community, art, culture, hard work, and possibility. What was once an “impossible” dream has become the next generation’s reality, and we all get to live it.

In 2013, the Motion Picture Association of America named Traverse City’s State Theatre the #1 best movie theater in the world. The art deco style is a nod to the origins of the State, and the marquee is as vibrant and striking as any moviehouse I’ve ever seen. The Traverse City Film Festival even has its own Walk of Fame, where handprints of directors, filmmakers, musicians, comedians, and actors who have all attended the Traverse City Film Festival or Comedy Festival over the years—including Sinbad, Wim Wenders, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, Judd Apatow, and Madonnagrace the sidewalk outside the State.

Bringing back the State Theatre to its movie-going glory really would have been impossible if it weren’t for the support and grit of passionate, film-loving locals eager to see Moore’s cinema-centric vision come to life. Now a year-round art house for Northern Michigan, the State Theatre is a Traverse City landmark (as is the Bijou by the Bay, once the vacant 80-year-old Con Foster Museum, renovated and opened as Downtown Traverse City’s second year-round cinema in July 2013). With a functioning marquee that’s been glowing magnificently for a solid decade now, the State Theatre keeps shining bright thanks to Michael Moore and the Northern Michigan community making possible and sustaining this remarkable revival.

And I’m still replaying memories from this year’s thirteenth annual Traverse City Film Festival! Every year the nonprofit organization releases a complete guide of all Film Festival goings-on, including movie descriptions, free events, venues, partners, sponsors, and more. On the cover of the 2017 guide is a photo of Downtown’s State Theatre marquee with six powerful words I love so much: ONE GREAT MOVIE CAN CHANGE YOU.

Me by the State Theatre at the second annual Traverse City Film Festival in 2006.

As a former Film Fest intern and volunteer for years, I feel TCFF is uniquely exceptional because it signals something big—that something whole, vital, and real exists around us and within. It’s a caring community. It’s a genuine experience. It’s a love of art. It’s no wonder the TCFF tagline is “Just Great Movies!” The philosophy behind the Festival centers on the importance of cinema as an art form, the filmgoing experience, bringing people together, and revitalizing community spaces through local partnerships and volunteerism. Looking at the numbers, you can see how quickly TCFF caught on in Traverse City and with the film community at large. This year, there were 120,000 admissions across 10 venues, 110 guests from the film industry, 1,600 volunteers, and 125 musicians performing. Keep in mind, the inaugural Film Festival was planned in only two months. 

Filmmaker Michael Moore discussing his documentary “Sicko” with panelists at the 2007 Traverse City Film Festival.

Volunteers make TCFF come together. How did the Film Fest reach 1,600 volunteers this year? The nonprofit organizes groups of people who are passionate about cinema and community and creates open opportunities for generous involvement. TCFF makes it simple for anyone who wants to play a role to do so. Whether it’s as a filmmaker, student, teacher, helping out instrumentally as a venue manager, volunteering for a single shift (while getting to watch a great film and snack on popcorn), sponsoring an event, interning, or becoming a partner or Friend of the Film Festival to get annual benefits like early ticket purchasing and free screening party tickets, there are so many opportunities to get involved and put your affinity for movies and community to work.

TCFF 2017 Film School instructors teach “Anatomy of a Short” class at NMC.

TCFF is also passionate about education, leadership, and connecting resources throughout the state (the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office, Interlochen Arts Academy, the University of Michigan’s Screen Arts and Cultures department, and the Film Studies Program at Michigan State University) for Michigan communities to learn about, participate in, and be exposed to moviemaking and the art of film. I loved this year’s “Anatomy of a Short” class at the Film School, sponsored by NMC. Lesley Tye, instructor of Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen Arts Academy, told our class that a short film is typically 3-15 minutes in length, focused on a single event, and often told like a joke, starting with a setup and finishing with a punchline. Film is “an everything art,” similar to music, as both art forms are told over time.

Local musician TC Uke Guy performs at Old Town Playhouse before the 2017 Comedy Panel.

In addition to great movies, the Film Fest also cares about great local food and music. As a Certified Local Food Event, TCFF partnered with Traverse City’s own Taste the Local Difference and was sponsored by Oryana Community Co-Op to provide filmgoers with access to and information about all fresh food Northwestern Michigan has to offer. The music at TCFF features the best of Northern Michigan’s homegrown and visiting artists from the Midwest and beyond. The Festival also organizes Facebook Live interviews with filmmakers and actors conducted by local arts activists (Lesley Tye did a livestream interview with Gilbert Gotfried this year). If you’re unable to make it to TCFF in person, tuning in on Facebook and checking out the fun dailies and photos taken throughout the week let you experience behind-the-scenes Film Festival magic for yourself.

The Comedy Panel hosted by comedian Doug Benson at the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival.

Free movies at the Open Space are a Film Fest tradition drawing in huge crowds of visitors and locals alike. TCFF also hosts free panels, where a local audience sits before industry experts from around the globe talking about film. At this year’s Festival, I attended the Comedy Panel, an annual favorite hosted for five consecutive years by comedian Doug Benson. Panelists included Samm Levine (from Freaks and Geeks), Sean Jordan, Bob Byington, Jack Henry Robbins, and Zefrey Throwell, and the show consisted of unscripted jokes and spontaneous laughs. 

The final week of July leading into to first week of August for the last 13 years have become beloved days of summer in Northern Michigan where people come together to celebrate the art of film. Michael Moore started it all, yet the future of the Traverse City Film Festival is in the hands of the community that makes it possible. And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Michael Moore returned to Traverse City earlier this fall on November 4 to host an evening “Anniversary Mike’s Surprise” event—what he called a “fundraiser for our glorious Northern Michigan movie palace”to celebrate the 10 phenomenal years since the State Theatre’s grand reopening. This past weekend, the theater displayed a Roger Ebert quote on its marquee in celebration of the anniversary: “A town’s old theaters are the sanctuary of its dreams.” May the marquee sparkle on.

Categories: Experiencing Northern Michigan

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