Friday Five: Five Must-Visit Theaters in Northern Michigan

The lit-up marquees shining out from a Northern Michigan movie theater in downtown Traverse City or the village of Elk Rapids. The smell of fresh popcorn wafting through the unique movie theater lobbies. The hushed moment when the lights go down and the first bright images flicker on screen. There’s no experience quite like going to the movies … especially during the cold Michigan months when a few heated hours indoors provide a much-need respite to the howling winds outside.

Northern Michigan is filled with outstanding, independent movie theaters that bring one-of-a-kind movie experiences to life. From the State Theater in Traverse City, restored by Michael Moore, to the Charlevoix Cinema III in Charlevoix, our Friday Five this week hits Northern Michigan movie theaters you don’t want to miss.

The State Theatre – Traverse City

Undoubtedly the crown jewel of movie theaters Up North, the recently reopened State Theatre has energized nightlife in downtown Traverse City and provided a permanent home for the Traverse City Film Festival, founded in 2005 by Michael Moore, Doug Stanton and John Robert Williams. In 2007, Moore spearheaded the campaign to renovate the theater, which was originally built in 1918 as the Lyric Theatre and which sat shuttered on Front Street since 1991. Now restored to its former glory, the refurbished theater recalls the great movie palaces of old, featuring rich carpeting, plush seats, a state-of-the-art sound system and screen, and a custom-engineered star ceiling designed to replicate the night sky over the State in the summer. Movie lovers will find a treasure trove of independent and foreign films to enjoy at the theater, which offers classic films on Wednesday and kids films on Saturday for twenty-five cents, $3 Friday Night Flicks, a Sunday Cinema Guild Series, and Community Night on Mondays. Special events are also a regular staple; check the calendar for high-definition broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, free sporting and political events, and movie sneak peeks and premieres.

For movie listings and showtimes, call 231-947-4800 or visit statetheatretc.org.

The Bay Theatre – Suttons Bay

The Traverse City Film Festival often shows its first screening each year at the Bay Theatre in Suttons Bay, and for good reason – like the State, the Bay has attracted a loyal and committed cinema following. Transformed from a hardware store into a movie theater in 1946, the Bay was purchased by the Bahle family in 1976 and underwent a two-year renovation. The resulting 471-seat facility – featuring a turn-of-the-century look with original seats and hardwood floors – has hosted thousands of visitors each year since, all drawn to the Bay’s eclectic programming mix of Hollywood hits, foreign films and live performances. Owner and manager Robert Bahle extends this tempting offer to film lovers: If there’s a movie you’re dying to see, and you haven’t been able to find a theater playing it, he’ll do his best to screen it at the Bay.

For movie listings and showtimes, call 231-271-3772 or visit leelanau.com/thebay.

The Garden Theater – Frankfort

In 1923, the Victoria Theater opened in Frankfort with 592 seats. A popular community attraction, it remained in almost continuous use until just a few years ago, though it changed its name to the Garden Theater in the early 1940s. However, the theater had fallen into disrepair in the ’80s, eventually running exclusively in summer months due to a failed heating system. Committed to restoring life to this local treasure, a group of citizens purchased the building in 2008, renovated the facility and re-opened it to great fanfare in June 2009. The new incarnation of the Garden Theater features a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system, brand new seats, digital sound and hand-crafted art deco ceiling tiles. Committed to showing first-run independent and foreign films, the Garden enjoyed a robust turnout at its first annual Frankfort Film Festival held earlier this month.

For movie listings and showtimes, call 231-352-7561 or visit frankfortgardentheater.com.

Elk Rapids Cinema – Elk Rapids

The Elk Rapids Cinema, which celebrated its 70th birthday in September, is famous for being home to the "world’s largest black light ceiling mural." The historic single-screen theater is also home to a rotating mix of new mainstream hits and off-the-beaten-path cult favorites, attracting both casual moviegoers and die-hard film buffs to screenings. This summer, Michael Moore presented theater owner Joe Yuchasz with a Golden Reel Award, which provides seed money for renovation to small-town movie theaters throughout Michigan (the owners of the Garden Theater – see above – also took home a Golden Reel Award). Locals and tourists alike are especially fond of the theater’s low ticket and concession prices, which are far below those found at most chain cinemas.

For movie listings and showtimes, call 231-264-8601 or visit elkrapidscinema.com.

Charlevoix Cinema III – Charlevoix

The Cinema III Theater may be a latecomer to the theater game (it opened in 1996), but it’s already established a reputation as a destination cinema in Northern Michigan. A nod to a bygone era of small-town theaters, Cinema III shows an average of 130 films a year – including both mainstream Hollywood flicks and independent movies – on its three screens. Owner Bill Supernaw often greets patrons by name and is known to record his own hotline listings, which include movie tidbits and trivia. Best of all, unlike most modern theaters, Cinema III does not screen ads before its movies. Try stopping by on Wednesday night to take advantage of discounted ticket prices.

For movie times and listings, call 231-547-4353.

The Friday Five is a weekly list of the top things to do, see and experience in Northern Michigan. Have a topic suggestion for the list? Email [email protected]

Looking to grab a bite before the movie? Check out the MyNorth Restaurant Directory.

Article Comments

  • ssipiora

    You forgot about the Cherry Bowl Drive-In

  • betmi1

    Hi SSIPIORA –

    Thanks for your comment. I considered including the Cherry Bowl – one of my favorite summer spots – on the list, and agree it’s a worthy addition. However, I ultimately decided to limit this list specifically to indoor, year-round movie theaters. I may do a separate list in the future that’s focused on drive-ins, as there are some great ones Up North.

    Best,
    Beth