Community unites to save iconic northern Michigan movie theater

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Suttons Bay — A beacon for movie lovers in this Leelanau County village for seven decades, the marquee of The Bay was in danger of going dark at the end of this month as the owners of the northern Michigan movie theater were ready to hand in the keys.

But a late rally from residents who feared what the loss of the single-screen, 200-seat movie house would mean for Suttons Bay appears to have saved the beloved cinema on St. Joseph Street.

The 200-seat Bay theater in Suttons Bay held a community forum Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 in an attempt to find a new owner for the venue, the only movie house in Leelanau County.

After a community forum earlier this month, more than 100 supporters and volunteers came together and formed the nonprofit The Bay Community Theater to keep the marquee lit and doors open. Headed by local businessman Rick Andrews, the group will take over on Jan. 1.

“There’s a lot of relief,” said Erik Bahle, present manager of The Bay. “I’d say this is an early Christmas present. It’s going to be a community theater in the finest sense of the word."

The draw of watching a film on a big screen with a fresh box of popcorn has not been lost in northern Michigan. From Harbor Springs to Grayling to Manistee and other rural areas, small-town theaters are being saved, upgraded, renovated and restored, bringing increased traffic to the towns and villages where they reside.

Which explains the effort to save the iconic Suttons Bay venue that was once a livery and a fire station before it began showing movies in 1946.

"It's really come together really fast," Andrews said Friday. "It's pretty exciting."

Last week, 20 interested residents gathered and decided to forge ahead in saving the theater. 

"It was off to the races after that meeting," he said. "We already had all of the contracts and vendors that made the theater work, so we decided to continue forward."

While the financial details remain to be worked out, Andrews said the new Bay Community Theater will officially begin business on New Year's Day and intends to show a first-run movie, "The Mule" featuring Clint Eastwood, that evening.

"We're going to keep the lights on," he said.

The theater seeks patrons from all over northwestern lower Michigan to fill its seats. And the consensus from customers at the forum was the theater is an important part of the community and county.

The Bay is located right in the center of the village. A small entrance opens to the concession stand where popcorn and candy are available. High ceilings overhead with dark walls and soft, offset lighting give the 200-seat theater an comfortable feel.

It's been a place to watch old movies, art films and music concerts or just a place for the community to gather.

Robert Bahle, Erik's uncle, had just graduated from Michigan State University in 1976 when his parents purchased the theater and employed him. The theater was updated with new lighting, a stage and general repair work.

“There were a lot of tasks to perform: programming, staff schedules, marketing and publicity, and updating details on the marquee and the physical plant,” he said. “We’ve had five families involved in this place. After 42 years, we do not have the energy to run the theater anymore.”

Robert Bahle addressed an overflow crowd at the forum concerned with the future of the building.

“We don’t have a detailed vision as to what’s next,” he told the crowd of more than 250. 

Back in the day, small towns throughout Michigan had their own theaters, featuring newsreels and previews before each film, with matinees and children’s movies on Saturday mornings.

But the advent of streaming video and at-home viewing of movies on large televisions has hurt the industry, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, with a large number of small-town theaters closing when the switch from 35mm film to digital became too expensive for the venues.

A single digital projector can cost from $60,000 to $150,000. Major multiple-screen theaters in large cities could afford the costs, but smaller one-screen venues had difficulties.

“It’s a tragedy when a movie theater closes,” said Roger Blaser, co-founder and past president of the Lyric Theater in Harbor Springs. “You simply cannot measure the impact of the loss.”

Blaser said theaters are especially important in the winter when fewer people have reason to come downtown.

The Harbor Springs theater was also revived about three years ago after community members found a location on Main Street to operate it in.

The new theater, housed in a renovated 100-year-old building, features three screens and is run as a nonprofit with a core of 120 volunteers.

“It was really expensive,” said Blaser, “but the community came together and gave us the flexibility of three screens.”

Sponsorships for theater seats also were offered for $1,000 each, and all were taken, he said. 

Businesses and restaurants in downtown Harbor Springs have indicated a 15 percent to 25 percent increase in business since the theater opened.

"It’s a magnificent place to go. It’s a wonderful asset to the community," Blaser said. "... You can’t replicate a high-definition screen with surround sound, interacting with community members. It’s irreplaceable.”

The Vogue Theatre in Manistee reopened in 2013 after being shuttered for years. A nonprofit runs the 231-seat cinema with the help of a core of 300 volunteers.

“It’s been a great five years,” said Marty Yaple, manager of the theater. “We’ve been going great guns with our two screens. Restaurant and shop owners in the city have told us they are busier than ever with the theater open.”

The impact of a small-town theater is also known to Joe Yuchasz, who has owned and operated the Elk Rapids Cinema for 45 years.

Downtown eateries stay open late for patrons of the theater, he said, and many nights the parking around the venue is full. The 300-seat theater has one screen and is open seven days a week with two daily shows.  

“I think the business of going to the theater is a big thing,” Yuchasz said. “It’s not any one thing, but there is a sort of synergy that develops in a downtown with a movie theater. It’s an age-old tradition to go to a movie.”

Beginning in 2008, a restoration project in Elk Rapids began with new seating, drapes, paint and a sound system, ultimately converting to digital projection in 2013.

“It’s a continuing restoration,” said Yuchasz, “after 45 years, I’m getting the hang of it."

The State Theatre in Traverse City was renovated and re-opened in 2007 after being closed for over 10 years. Operated as a nonprofit, community-based, volunteer-run organization by the Traverse City Film Festival, its impact was immediate to businesses in the downtown area.

The renovated theater has been positive for nearby businesses, said Michael Williams, a daytime supervisor at the Amical European restaurant next door. 

“With the Traverse City Film Festival, it’s had a significant impact on sales,” he said.

Rob Larrea, Suttons Bay’s village manager, said The Bay has played an essential role in the small Suttons Bay community of fewer than 700 people. 

“It would be a shame to not have the marquee lights on at night,” Larrea said. “It’s a draw to the village all year.”

That sentiment was echoed by Martha Ryan of Martha’s Leelanau Table, a popular downtown restaurant.

“We’ve done dinner-and-a-movie specials during the winter," Ryan said. "It would be really harmful to the local economy if that place was empty.”

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer in Traverse City.