Northern Michigan Attractions: Frankfort's Garden Theater

Northern Michigan Attractions: More evidence in Northern Michigan that a movie house marquee can light up the spirit of an entire town.

So… it was in the dead of winter, early 2004, and the streets of the sleepy Lake Michigan harbor town of Frankfort were in a very deep slumber indeed. Betsie Bay was frozen solid. Snow banks lined the car-less streets. Summer residents were months away. And even many businesses were closed till spring. On any given Sunday afternoon you could bowl on Main Street and pretty much nobody would care, or perhaps even know.

On one Saturday evening amid the snow and cold, the Schmitts—Rick and Jennie—invited six friends over for dinner. Maybe the party had run too late. Maybe the host had poured one or two too many glasses of wine. Maybe the winter was feeling especially long. Some of these details are lost to history. But what is known is that at some point during the Schmitts’ dinner party, conversation turned to the movie house downtown, called The Garden Theater.

Such a travesty, because all winter-long when locals need the Garden most, it was locked up, dark, cold and lonely and had been for maybe 10 winters straight. Frankfort deserves a good movie theater. Frankfort deserves a movie theater open all year. Frankfort people would really love that. That night, “Somebody said somebody should do something about that,” Rick Schmitt recalls. (Important side note: this was prior to Michael Moore’s drive to renovate Traverse City’s State Theatre, so the group didn’t even have the benefit of that as inspiration.) And then the conversation took a fateful turn. The pronoun “somebody” turned into the pronoun “we,” as in, “We should do something about that.” As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that first step happened that night.

Back in 2004, The Garden Theater had two principal owners, so the Schmitts and their friends called them up, investigated the property, and in the summer of 2004, they put in a purchase offer, an offer that was quickly rejected. “The owners didn’t have a mortgage on the building, so they just ran it for cash and didn’t really feel any pressure to sell it at the time,” Schmitt says. And so The Garden Theater sat dark for another winter. But the Schmitts and their friends didn’t forget the image of a vibrant marquee lighting Frankfort’s downtown in the dark of a long winter’s night, and so a year later, they submitted another purchase offer. The owners rejected it again. “Every year or so for the next few years we approached them with another offer,” Schmitt says.

Over time, word had leaked out that the couples were trying to buy the theater and revive it. “What really kept us going was so many people from the community encouraging us,” Schmitt says. “There was a spirit there, people would say, ‘we need this.’ ” And then, as 2008 arrived, The Garden Theater owners’ situation changed, and they were willing to come down in price. By then, the investor group had shrunk to two couples: Rick and Jennie Schmitt and Blake and Marci Brooks. To spread the sense of ownership among the community and to access more cash for the deal, the group sold 13 2 percent shares in the venture, shares that sold quickly. Many people offered to volunteer labor if the deal truly came to pass. Sleeping Bear Realty agreed to manage the transaction for free. State Savings Bank, where theater partner Blake Brooks works, agreed to write the mortgage. The group also tapped into a revolving loan fund through the Benzie County Economic Development Corporation.

The sale closed in June 2008, and the Schmitts and Brookses and their 2 percent partners suddenly owned a theater. A shabby theater, a roof-leaking theater, a broken-boiler theater, a dirty theater, a moldy theater, a smelly theater, a lumpy, hard-seats theater, a bathrooms-that-the-wives-wouldn’t-enter theater.

Standing now in the evocative amber glow of the renovated movie house, Blake Brooks thinks back to when he first toured the space. “It was dark. Not so dark you needed a flashlight, but all of the ceiling bulbs were burnt out except one, and the sconces were very dim.” One of the touches he remembers most was a collection of junk that sat under tarps between the first row of seats and the stage. He points to the front of the theater. “Right there,” he says. “I don’t remember everything that was there, but one item was a staircase from the Betsie Bay Inn.” Under previous management, the tarps and junk stayed there in summer when the theater was open, and people just looked over the pile as they watched a movie. Brooks pauses and scans the room. He squints to recall more of that first tour. “Over there,” he says, pointing to a neatly painted wall, “water stains ran down the walls, and the painted Art Deco designs were all smeared from water running down them.” Seats that sat under leaks were stained and smelled like mildew.

But despite the decrepitude, the theater had one powerful element working in its favor. By having always opened in the summer, the theater had never ceased operating as a theater, and so from a building code standpoint it kept its grandfathered status. This allowed the new owners to knock off the renovation projects as they could take them on, so they didn’t have to refurbish the place all at once, which would have demanded an enormous investment.

Needing to catch the summer business and to generate excitement as soon as possible, the new owners attacked the critical areas in a three-week burst. “We gave it the best Band-Aid deep cleaning we could,” Schmitt says. “We upgraded the sound system. (A group of locals invested $10,000 to help pay for it.) We fixed the roof. And we renovated the bathrooms. Both our wives said the first thing we are doing is renovating those bathrooms.”

They opened July 5, 2008, with only half the neon glowing on the marquee. That first night 220 people paid to see a newly released Indiana Jones film—a swashbuckling tale of quest fitting for the gauntlet the new owners had just run themselves. Schmitt remembers standing outside under the marquee that night, greeting people. “I saw people holding the door open for their friends, and there was just a sense that as people walked through that door, they knew it was a different threshold they were walking over.”

In that patched-up condition, the Garden ran movies daily through Labor Day. “It was just goose bumps times,” Schmitt says. “So many people telling us they wanted to help and how grateful they were that we had cleaned the theater and it didn’t smell like mold. People told us they had given up on the Garden,” Schmitt says.

When they closed at summer’s end, the investors dug deeper into the renovations. And like renovation tales the world over, things quickly grew more expensive than the dreamers had predicted. They knew they had to replace the boiler, but they figured they could keep the pipes. Turned out the pipes were rotten too. And that asbestos remediation bill: three times the estimate. Some changes demanded more electricity than the theater could deliver. Add upgraded electrical to the tab. But for every added expense the new owners met 10 more people willing to volunteer to make the Garden a vibrant part of their community and lives. An artist group volunteered to repaint the Art Deco tiles. A guy volunteered to refurbish all the Art Deco sconces. A clock repairman offered to fix the blue-glowing clock, stuck for 20 years at five minutes to 12. A dozen people showed up on a Saturday to help yank out the old and painful theater seats to make way for the 320 cushy new ones—the new seats, $70,000 worth—themselves purchased by individuals proud to have their names on the back. “People understand it’s technically not a nonprofit, but it’s run like one,” Schmitt says. “No owners are getting a salary and everything gets pumped back into the theater. For sure nobody is quitting their day jobs.”

Architect Michael Fitzhugh, who did the architectural work at the State Theatre, also agreed to offer his services pro bono. (Though the Frankfort group’s idea pre-dated the State, TC’s theater happened fast when it did get going, and so was already completed by the time the Garden restoration began.) Fitzhugh grew up in Frankfort, a 1992 grad, and having seen first hand what a downtown theater did for Traverse City wanted to bring the same magic to his own hometown. “He completely measured the building and provided architectural drawings we used for the seats, the electrical, everything. And he did color schemes,” Schmitt says. And all of Fitzhugh’s work was informed by what he learned at the State.

When summer 2009 rolled around it was time for a second grand opening. In an event coordinated with Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Garden showed a documentary about Garrison Keillor called The Man in the Red Shoes, and 370 people crammed into the Garden to celebrate. “We had to bring in extra seats,” Schmitt says. Also like renovation tales the world over, the last minutes were a scramble. “We had the bathroom floors re-tiled and had taken the doors off, so when we went to put them back on we realized the floor was a half inch higher.” So, there they were, a half hour before the opening, hauling the saw horses out and sawing a half inch off the bottom of the bathroom door to get it to fit.

For partner Blake Brooks, what he really likes when thinking about the changes is to look at the theater from the projection booth window. “It’s a night and day difference seen from up there,” he says. To show it off, he walks up the carpeted theater aisle—the swanky 1960’s carpet was one element that was still good enough to just clean and reinstall—and steps to the base of the stairs that climb to the projection room. “This is where the renovation stops,” he says. The stairway walls are a tired pale hue, banged up, the wall has a hole punched in it two-thirds of the way up. At the top, the projection rooms are small and cluttered, but the condition doesn’t dim Brooks’s enthusiasm for showing off the theater’s control center. Brooks keeps saying, “I’m the banker, I’m the boring numbers guy in the group.” And his blue-and-red striped tie, khakis, glasses and trim hair might lead you to believe him. But clearly his passion for the movie house burns bright; besides, if he were just a numbers guy, he wouldn’t be in the deal.

Summery afternoon light shines in from the two south-facing windows that look down onto Main Street. A full-length feature film, Larry Crown, sits spooled tightly on the platter. “So the film strings from there, over to this projector,” he says, tracing the route in the air with his finger. Nobody really knows the age of the Gard’s projector, a Strong brand made in Toledo during maybe the 50’s or 40’s, though the theater was built in 1923, so it could be older. “Being a projectionist is kind of an art,” Brooks says. “The film comes in in a few sections that you have to splice together and then you have to thread it through all these things and not damage the film.” Luckily for the Garden’s new owners, the longtime projectionist agreed to stay on. Brooks looks out that window at summer tourists strolling the town at its busy-season height. “You know, yes, it’s cool that we get a lot of summer business, and we give summer tourists one more thing to do in Frankfort, but for me what’s really important is that, now, on a Sunday afternoon in the off season, the streets are lined with cars. People are coming back to downtown. After or before the movie they go out to dinner at the Fusion or Betsie Bay Inn. People think, Hey, this is my theater.”

As part of the theater’s mission of keeping the marquee lights bright all year long and to broaden the film offering beyond Hollywood blockbusters, the new owners launched the Frankfort Film Festival. This year’s, the third annual, runs October 20 through 23. The concept is a “best of the best” idea—bringing in the “best of festival” films from famous film festivals the world over, like best of Tribeca Film Festival, best of Berlin Film Festival, best of Sundance Film Festival.

Click here for the 2011 Frankfort Film Festival Lineup

Make it a weekend

Check out The Garden Theater renovations and cushy seats yourself during a weekend away in Frankfort, one of Lake Michigan’s most engaging harbor towns. Lots of stuff nearby to enjoy between movies.

Spend the Night in Frankfort

Betsie Bay Inn. Just down the block from The Garden Theater, this B&B with restaurant and extensive wine list is also just a block from the beach. From $80/night After Labor Day through October. 231.352.9080, betsiebayinn.com.

Harbor Lights, motel room and condo rentals right on the Frankfort beach, from $79 a night. 800.346.9614, harborlightsresort.net.

Dine in Frankfort

Across the street from the Garden, the Fusion’s quality pan-Asian fare has fixed it firmly in the minds of Northern Michigan foodies, lunch and dinner. 231.352.4114.

Check out the Bayview Grille, across from the charter docks, for inventive renditions of classic fare, breakfast, lunch and dinner. 231.352.8051, bayviewgrille.com.

Dinghy’s Restaurant and Bar, right down Main Street, is a Frankfort legend, classic menu well executed. 231.352.4702, dinghysrestaurant.com.

Stretch Your Legs in Frankfort

Beach walk: Frankfort’s beach and pier are among Michigan’s finest, and you won’t even have to drive to enjoy them. Other sweet strolls at Point Betsie Lighthouse 10 minutes north of town off M-22 and just a mile south in Elberta.

Hike: The Old Indian Trail, just 15 minutes north of town, empties onto a secluded Lake Michigan beach. The trail is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and several trails to wander and small lakes to fish. nps.gov/slbe.

Bike ride: The Betsie Valley Trail runs 22 miles from Frankfort to Thompsonville—a mix of forest and views of Crystal Lake. The first six miles from Frankfort are paved, with the remaining crushed aggregate. betsievalleytrail.org.

Charter fish: Frankfort is one of Lake Michigan’s premier charter fishing ports. Troll for salmon, steelhead, lake trout and brown trout. michigancharterboats.com.  

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