North Woods: Old movie theaters get new lease on life

Sep 30, 2011

We wrap up our Stories from the North Woods series with a look at how cities and towns from Detroit to Marquette are bringing new life to their old movie palaces. 

The Vista Theater as community theater

When the Vista Theater opened in Negaunee in the 1920s, the Upper Peninsula town was booming. Alfred Keefer says the Vista "was the theater to be at, and they would fill this house up on movie nights."

Fast forward to today and Keefer says, aside from the theater, there's not much going on in Negaunee, a town about 20 minutes west of Marquette.

Keefer runs the nonprofit Peninsula Arts Appreciation Council which bought the Vista after it closed in the 70s and has been slowly bringing it back to life. But instead of black and white talkies, the grand old movie palace is now home to a community theater.

The Orpheum Theater as rock venue

Michael Shupe bought the shuttered Orpheum Theater a couple years ago in downtown Hancock. Shupe knows the theater was built over a century ago, but other than that he doesn’t have too much information about the history of the place.

"But I do have a newspaper clipping on the wall, roughly from 1915, that’s says Captain Webb and his trained seals are coming," says Shupe, "so there were probably trained seals on my stage!"

Shupe swapped out the trained seals for live music. The theater is also home to a small restaurant called the Studio Pizza, which Shupe says helps pay the rent. Speaking of money, Shupe says the theater renovations have cost a lot more than he planned, but he's happy with the results. It seems Hancock city officials are happy, too.

"When we bought the place, they seemed quite thrilled," says Shupe. He says city officials "gave us a small grant to help with the rehabilitation of the outside of the façade. I think they saw us as one of the early steps in bringing Hancock back to the forefront of the area’s commercial district."

The role of theater restoration

Cities across Michigan are trying to bring new life to their downtown areas by restoring their old movie theaters, including Sault Ste Marie, Albion and Redford.

Filmmaker Michael Moore re-opened the long-shuttered State Theatre in Traverse City in 2007 and it now brings in millions of dollars for the city. He’s planning to do the same thing in Manistee, where he’s leading the effort to restore the town’s Vogue Theatre.

Garry Hoppenstand, a professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, thinks the restoration efforts are "very exciting and I think it’s certainly is good for the community."

Hoppenstand says Michigan's big theater boom took place just prior to the Great Depression in the 1920s. But he says the theaters "helped America to survive the Depression" in two important ways:

  1. The theaters provided an inexpensive form of entertainment where people could escape their day-to-day problems.
  2. Having a theater downtown brought people and income to the area.

Two things any Michigan city would be happy to have during this, the Great Recession.