In 2004, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore joined with author Doug Stanton and photographer John Robert Williams to renovate Traverse City’s State Theatre, and in so doing, set in motion one of the most remarkable and inspiring renovation projects in America. Sound a little grandiose? Maybe, but consider that the Motion Picture Association of America put the State Theatre in the No. 1 spot on its list of Best Movie Theaters in the World in a 2013 ranking. The association noted touches like the replica of a starry August night twinkling in the State’s ceiling, flawless restoration of Art Deco décor and the most comfortable theater seats you’ve ever settled into.
For lovers of Northern Michigan the award was a point of pride, to be sure, and something to glow about, but people who know Traverse City understand that the truly impressive result of the volunteer and non-profit restoration effort is how it has infused the downtown with spirit and vitality—filling restaurants, pubs and the shopping district and convincing others to invest in downtown Traverse City.
Upon opening after a frenzied and said-it-couldn’t-be-done 60-day restoration effort, the State Theatre immediately hosted the first Traverse City Film Festival in summer 2004. Thousands of Film fans lined up outside the State and a few other select venues around town and packed restaurants and pubs to share spirited opinions about the dozens of films that Michael Moore personally curated for the event. The Traverse City Film Festival has continued to flourish, and in 2014 will celebrate its 10th anniversary with festivities yet to be announced, but sure to inspire further.
In 2013, the State Theatre organization launched a second renovation effort, turning a defunct and empty little museum on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay into Traverse City’s second non-profit movie theater downtown. Named Bijou by the Bay, the movie house seats just 150 people.
Now, a decade into its own run, the State’s influence is felt well beyond the week of the film festival. Even on icy, snowy nights in the heart of winter, people make their way to the State for a dose of that “willing suspension of disbelief.” And afterward, moviegoers bundle against the cold night, and head out to a restaurant or a pub, warmed by the film they just saw and conversation with a friend.