Somewhere in Time Weekend on Mackinac Island

The Somewhere in Time Weekend on Mackinac Island is the last big Mackinac Island event that occurs before tourist season ends. Although the 2014 running of this Northern Michigan tradition has just passed, this article, originally published in the October 2002 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine remains timeless…

On the coldest, loneliest weekend of the season, hundreds of people flock to Mackinac Island. They dress in old clothes. They take high tea. They discuss their philosophies of time travel. To celebrate their favorite movie about finding true romance, no matter what.


There’s a hodgepodge quality to the elegance of this group gathered in Grand Hotel’s dining room on a bitter October night. Tuxes, resale, vintage, costume, last year’s prom dress. It’s as if guests across time have been shaken and tumbled out like dice. An old gent in white tie and tails glides by carrying a silver tipped cane in one hand and video camera in the other. A guy in an ordinary navy blue suit chats with a man who, with spectacles and mustache, looks like a young Teddy Roosevelt. Across from them, a woman in reading glasses and a green
puff-sleeved taffeta dress sits quietly with her husband, finishing her coffee. They look like a talked-out married couple, but something about the shimmering dress speaks of hope, like she is waiting for romance to happen.

We are not back in time. But the air is shifting with promise.

Ever since the movie Somewhere in Time was filmed here 23 years ago, Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island have become a destination for fans of the movie—they come like pilgrims to relive the story of a man who falls in love with a woman in an old photo and travels back in time to find her. And for the past 12 years, the last weekend of the Grand’s season has been reserved as a peculiar kind of homecoming for hundreds—cast, crew and fans alike—to gather and pay homage to the film that made them believe in the kind of love that has no boundaries.

Old friends reconnect; new attendees gawk. Finally, with a buzz of excitement, the guests leave the dining room and head to the hotel theater. We file in toward the seats past a collection of movie posters that read “Beyond fantasy. Beyond obsession. Beyond time itself… he will find her.” It’s a film these people know by heart, and one Grand Hotel has been showing once or twice a week for the last two decades, but that doesn’t lessen the thrill of tonight’s screening. The whispered greetings and rustling dresses quiet, and as the opening credits roll, spontaneous applause breaks out.

The whole phenomenon began in 1979 with a low budget movie based on the romantic novel Bid Time Return, by respected science fiction writer Richard Matheson. Stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour loved the script and had high hopes for the film—it was Reeve’s first project after the blockbuster Superman, and he chose the project over dozens of other star vehicles. Seymour reportedly showed up for the audition dressed in period clothing, insisting she must have the part. But despite the stars’ passion for the picture, critics blasted the film and it tanked. Big time.

But those who did see Somewhere in Time were moved. And while it failed on the big screen, the new mediums of cable TV and home VCRs brought the movie into people’s homes by accident, by recommendation, by word of mouth. Twenty-three years later the movie is a cult phenomenon: it remains a cable classic, a popular rental, shows up on top-ten lists of romantic movie this and chick flick that.

Bear with us for a moment, but if you haven’t seen the movie, a synopsis is in order. A modern day playwright named Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) suffers from writer’s block and retreats to Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. There, he is enchanted by an old photo of actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) who performed at the hotel in 1912. Through willpower, self-hypnosis and the sheer force of his love, Richard transports himself back in time. The two fall in love despite the evil plans of Elise’s controlling manager Robinson (Christopher Plummer), and all seems to be going well until a reminder of the present sends Richard hurtling back to his own time where he dies of a broken heart.

For years, fans loved the film in relative seclusion until Bill Shepard, a soft spoken man who looks more like an automotive company executive than a fan-club founder, began the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts (INSITE) 12 years ago. He wondered if—even years after its release—there were others out there who felt the way he did. So he wrote a 10-page newsletter, photocopied it off, and ran an ad in a movie magazine that read: “Are you a fan of Somewhere in Time? Want to see it get more recognition?”
“I got about 50 responses in a couple of weeks,” he says. “I was amazed. We were amazed. We weren’t alone.”

Not by a long shot. For the past 12 years, Grand Hotel and the INSITE fan group have co-hosted this offbeat reunion. Each year, the hotel ends its season with the Somewhere in Time weekend, and nearly every time the hotel has sold out all 381 of its rooms.

Why the enduring fascination? Plenty of movie fans fall in love with a film and even re-create its world. Consider the Stars Wars junkies dressed as Darth Vader in line to see the latest sequel. But unlike a regular movie set, both Somewhere in Time’s setting and time period remain eerily intact on Mackinac Island, meaning fans can come each year to touch a place where romance—big, old-fashioned, die-for-love romance—seems possible. Even if it’s only for a weekend.

The next morning, a guy in a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt barks into a bullhorn, directing us off the hotel porch and down the hill toward the first stop on our walking tour of scenes from the movie. We’ve been up early and have a full day ahead. The roster lists activities like a Somewhere in Time trivia contest, a panel discussion with former cast and crew, and a 1912 fashion show where we’ll learn about tennis togs and underwear. But the Somewhere in Time walking tour—complete with reenactments from the film—is recommended by returning fans as the activity not to be missed.

As we reach the beach, someone herds a flock of Canada geese off the set, and tour-goers position their video cameras. This scene is The Big One, the long, poignant moment where Richard (now back in 1912) meets Elise for the first time. On a rock next to us is a brass plaque, a gift from the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts marking the exact spot where the scene was filmed.

Our Elise of the moment, Melissa Melendez, is just out of sight behind some trees, shivering in a pink ruffled dress and bomber jacket as she waits to go on. Melissa and her husband, Rick, are a handsome young couple from California; he’s on hand in a tux, playing Richard. They’re thrilled to have been asked to do the scene but admit that they are by no means
hardcores in the realm of fandom. “The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t ‘get it,’ ” Melissa admits. “But after I saw it a few times, I was hooked. Rick, too.” They’re first timers at the Somewhere in Time weekend, the trip a gift from Melissa to Rick. It was supposed to be a surprise, but when she found him in the living room watching the movie, she thought he’d found out and accused him of prepping for the trip. Turns out he was watching it just to watch it.

With the geese safely out of the way, someone hits play on a portable karaoke machine, and the movie’s soundtrack floats up over our heads as Melissa picks her way out of the cedars by the water’s edge. She turns. Her eyes lock with Rick’s. The huge crowd is silent, hanging on their words.

“Is it you?” Melissa/Elise asks.

“Yes,” says Rick/Richard.

Then there’s a mass head turning as longtime INSITE member Bob Simonson sweeps into the scene. Wearing white tie and tails, white gloves and a Vandyke beard, he plays a
flawless Robinson, the Christopher Plummer character who is the actress’s controlling manager bent on keeping the lovers apart. Bob delivers his lines with utter authority, takes Melissa by the elbow and steers her away from Rick, ending the scene. Thunderous applause. The crowd is excited by the performance and, thus inspired, bolts herdlike to get a good vantage point for the next scene on the tour.

Across the island we stop and Richards and Elises emerge. They are young, middle aged, tall, short, trim, plump. They know the monologues and dialogues by heart and deliver them with surprising sensitivity.

Bob Simonson is always Robinson. He’s so good and lends such a serious authenticity to his scenes that it seems pointless to unseat him just to give someone else a crack at it. Bob is known for his encyclopedic memory of the movie’s script; also, his ability to deliver Robinson’s lines in impersonated voices. He does a chilling Jimmy-Stewart-as-Robinson if you ask.
Bob wasn’t always a fan, he points out. He’d seen the box in the video store, heard about it from friends, and finally just gave in and rented it nearly ten years after the movie originally came out. Bob admits he was surprised at how good the film turned out to be, and that he hadn’t heard of it sooner. “It cut the legs out from under me,” he says. “It’s a love story men can identify with, because it’s told from a male point of view; also, it’s an intelligent story, it talks up to people, not down.” Bob mentions he’s a member of Mensa—a group whose
members’ I.Q.s are in the top 2 percent of the population. Among members, he says, the film ranks as a consistent favorite. He also notes that the director was contacted by a physicist who appreciated the Einsteinian nature of the time travel depicted in the film.

This defense of the movie’s virtues in spite of its somewhat schmaltzy reputation is common among fans. They’ll cite the appeal of the soundtrack, the period costumes, the time travel, the man who dies for love. Bob lists these things, but adds this final truth: “It’s about finding the one thing in your life that really matters.”

It’s a powerful message that’s echoed by nearly everyone. Bill Erwin, one of the original cast members from the movie, knows something about love in the good old days. The 82-year-old actor played the hotel porter who befriends Richard in the present. Erwin has made ten of the last eleven Somewhere in Time weekends, and even if you don’t know the movie, his is a face that’s familiar from over fifty years on the big screen and small—the irascible grandpa, the kindly neighbor. Erwin is the quintessential character actor, and a real old-school Hollywood class act.

After his reenacted scene on the tour, fans ask for autographs and cameras click. Erwin fans himself in mock exhaustion. But it’s clear he’s as delighted by the crowd as they are by his presence. “It recharges my batteries,” he says. “I get to share memories of the shooting and see the same people.” As for the movie’s endurance and strange following? “We had no idea it was going to be what it became,” he says. “We were just trying to make as good a picture as we could. But we knew at some level it was special.” When prodded, he tells it like it is.
“I think the young people of today enjoy it.” He levels a look at me, young person of today that I am. “It’s redolent,” he says kindly, “with the kind of romance you never got to know.”

 

Just after high tea in the Grand’s parlor, Jessie Jessup sits alone staring out the window at the water of the straits. Her arms are outstretched, hands folded lightly over the handle of her parasol. She’s balancing a large cartwheel hat on her head. Her posture is perfect. Under her hat, Jessie’s hair, which is dyed the color of a California poppy, is neatly coiled and pinned.
A lot of people stop to admire the striking picture she creates. “Most costumes I had made,” she explains. “I have three for today, but I decided not to change for tea. Look at this.” She holds up her bag. It’s covered in silk roses that match the ones on her cartwheel hat. “Too many flowers is ugly; too too many is beautiful. Somebody said that.” (She later remembers it was everyone’s favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lectre in Silence of the Lambs). Jessie admits she didn’t have enough flowers to qualify for “too too,” so she’s glued tiny wads of hotel toilet paper in between as filler.

Jessie is an alternative rock DJ at KDGE in Dallas, where she is also known as 102.1’s Diva on the Edge. This is her second Somewhere in Time weekend. Last year she came with three or four dresses and knew no one. This year, she’s planned 12 outfits (“e-bay rocks!”) and every few minutes, someone walking by calls out hello (“I was instantly adopted by about 50 new friends”). She’s even arrived a day early this time, traveling in costume.

“I landed and came in all decked out at the Holiday Inn in Pellston. When I walked into the lobby, people were like, ‘okay, she’s weird.’ It was perfect. Well yeah, I was wearing a hat the size of a platter.”

Jessie grew up in Puerto Rico, Sai Pan, Guam and Hawaii with a bohemian mother she describes as “completely insane. She’s mad she has no grandkids and now has 26 wiener dogs, and she pushes them around in a wheelbarrow.” Jessie tugs gently at the cuff of her long white glove. “And I tell her I’m doing this and she thinks I’m crazy.”

Most Somewhere in Time fans consider themselves to be some of the saner people out there in the world. Strictly speaking, they’re neither history nerds nor movie buffs; rather they’re believers in a better, more gentle way of life and love that this film happens to hit on. Her life has changed since finding the movie and coming to the island, Jessie says. “I want to be pretty, I want to be treated with dignity and respect, I want to have deep philosophical conversations with people who have seriously studied the nature of traveling through time. There are days when I want to run screaming to the nearest airport and just get here.”

She points to a passing man in period dress. “Look. The men in cravats … all men should dress like that.” She considers it for a moment, then looks down at her own ensemble. “It invokes a classier time. I’m in alternative radio, and it’s very … well, we live in this F-you society. But in the movie, men respected women. Granted, women didn’t have the vote yet. But you see how Richard treats Elise, and women like that because they want to be treated that way.”

Jessie actually says “F,” not the word it implies. As she talks on about suffragettes and this evening’s choice of gowns and hairstyles, it’s clear that beneath the lace on her 1912 dress beats a rather genteel heart.

As evening falls, a tuxedoed young pianist in the parlor is on his third pass through the movie’s gushy theme song, playing it with as much tenderness as if it he hadn’t played this house favorite several times a day, every day, for the last five months. But if ever a moment required the music, it’s now.
Tonight’s cocktail hour/promenade is everyone’s chance to mingle in their vintage finery, reveling in the white-gloved world of 1912. When you arrive downstairs and the elevator door opens, the effect is staggering. Not a soul from this decade seems to exist; everywhere are beaded ladies in feathers and fans, men in tails and top hats. The newcomers who aren’t
in vintage look distinctly disoriented. They huddle together over by the tables of champagne.

As the music plays the crowd forms two long lines à la “Soul Train,” and one by one, guests walk down the rows to be admired. Bob is still channeling Robinson. Rick and Melissa are in yesterday’s reenactment ensemble, and Jessie, in a white lace gown, is hatless with her hair piled high and splashed with glitter. But they’re just a handful among the hundreds: the entire crowd has transformed itself, not just in appearance, but in manners, too. Men offer their arms to ladies. Drinks are held delicately, pinkies extended. Even snippets of conversation reveal the change. “She yelled at me—” says a woman from Dubuque to her husband, then checks herself. “She was quite displeased.”

After the promenade and a leisurely dinner, we sweep upstairs to the theater once more for some final business. The Ford Motor Company Chorus has traveled here for the weekend to perform a program of patriotic music and the debut of the choral version of the Somewhere in Time theme song. Two of their members, a married couple, have written the lyrics. They step forward as the familiar notes sound, and sing a duet to the mournful tune. The crowd sighs with pleasure. At the end, the conductor turns to face the applause, shouting, “Shall we do it again?” Much whistling and clapping, and off they go for another go around. It’s a receptive group.

After the performance, we are, so to speak, all dressed up with nowhere to go. There is the feeling of winding down, not just of the weekend, but of the entire season. Bars in town are the domain of locals again. It’s too cold for a stroll. Some couples make their way to the ballroom, swaying in their beads and lace to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” A group of serious fans heads up to the Cupola Bar, to have some drinks and beg the piano player for just a few more tunes.

One woman from Indiana with a low-cut black beaded costume, easy laugh and ostrich feather fan jumps up and entertains us with a few impromptu songs. After she shimmies through a crowd-pleasing “Hey Big Spender,” the waiter brings the last round of martinis and the pianist retires to his room. We’re not ready to call it—she offers to give her scrumptious fan to anyone who can get the piano man to come back (we can’t). The staff is clearly weary in the most patient and gracious way imaginable; that is, they leave us to our own devices. No one chases us out of the Cupola Bar, even after the waiters go to bed and the piano player pulls the cover down over the keys. Into the wee hours, we gaze out at the winking lights of the ships on the straits as the strains of old time songs (now sadly a cappella) drift down into the hallways of the old hotel.

When morning comes, the present has begun to reclaim its hold. People last seen waltzing are now huddled over coffee, looking tired. Carriages begin to roll up and massive piles of luggage—hat boxes, trunks and parasols mixed in with plastic suitcases on wheels—are stacked in the lobby and down the porch steps. Bob Simonson stands with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, looking a bit deflated in his navy blue pea coat. The group begs him for a little entertainment as they wait in line, and he relents, brightening, with a few lines in Jimmy Stewart style.

As the carriages fill and the crowd thins, Jessie appears in the doorway of the hotel. She’s wearing a car coat over her traveling dress and another giant hat, clutching a carpet bag primly in front of her as the rest of her luggage is loaded. Jessie, who admits she’s “rather” obsessed and hates to let go, is staying in 1912 dress all the way back to Texas. “It’s a pain in the keester,” she says. “There’s no explaining hats to people who are annoyed by your large feathers.”
In about seven hours, Jessie will arrive in Dallas to an apartment filled with vintage circus posters and a working Victrola. She won’t watch the movie again for months, she explains, because the sound of the seagulls brings tears her eyes.

She makes no move to hurry to the next carriage, waiting instead until the last possible moment to leave. As we roll away down the drive Jessie lifts her hand and waves, pausing to catch the brim of her hat in the island wind.

 

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