Destination Film: Traverse City State Theater - Michigan

As a child growing up having spent many summers on Elk Lake, Michigan, I became familiar with the downtown Traverse City area and my only go to places for film in the upper peninsula seemed to be the locally owned and managed Elk Rapids Cinema or the GKC (nor Carmike) mall cinema chain.  To my chagrin, I quickly learned the GKC theaters often played their films in the incorrect aspect ratio with 2.35:1 panoramic films like Apollo 13 and Mr. Holland’s Opus cropped on the sides improperly to 1.85:1 and although 1.85:1 films didn’t suffer much, widescreen films were pretty much ruined by the GKC.  Passing through downtown Traverse City was an abandoned movie house that was occasionally rented out to live stage shows while mostly remaining a derelict called the State Theater.  Owned by the local Rotary foundation, the 1916 built theater then called The Lyric burned down and was rebuilt in 1923 before showing Michigan’s first talkie in 1929 and was in operation for much of the century before closing down in 1991 under pressure from GKC cinema chain executives who placed a deed restricting the theater from exhibiting mainstream releases.  It wasn’t until Michigan resident and filmmaker Michael Moore began a concerted effort to restore not only it but many movie houses within the Traverse City area and on November 17, 2007, the long dormant movie house reopened with the highly successful Traverse City Film Festival as a brand new elite theater and was named by the Motion Picture Association of America as the number one movie theater in the world!

Inside the new theater is a single auditorium with new balcony seating, red curtains, a twinkling starfield lit ceiling, state of the art sound and 584 made-in-Michigan new theater seats.  As you enter the theater by the concession stands, there are two old fashioned theater murals celebrating cinematic icons of the 1940s, red couches and a memorabilia stand consisting of souvenirs of the theater and the Traverse City Film Festival.  In addition to being the central attraction spot for the Traverse City Film Festival, the State Theater is also home to many terrific and startlingly low priced revival movie showings including kids movie matinees on Tuesdays and grown up movie matinees on Wednesdays for as low as 25 cents a ticket!  Earlier this year ala Spring Break, the State Theater and nearby Bijou by the Bay theater hosted free movies all day on the last week of March, playing a total of 35 movies all for free!  Moreover, on select screenings such as a revival showing of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, the theater gave away free gummi worms and other screenings gave out free candy bars, soda and popcorn!  I thought the Cinemark at Universal Mall for $1 was a bargain in spite of the once inferior image quality and low light levels, but try to imagine one of the finest theaters in the state of Michigan letting you see your favorite movies in 4K DCP digital masters for free!  While I’m always going to prefer film projection in general, if the State Theater is booking your favorite movie it’s a good chance they will have a real 4K DCP master and not resort to blu-ray projection like the Main Art Theater does. 

While the lack of authentic celluloid film projection capabilities take the theater down just a notch for me, in every other area from the aura, the look and feel of the theater and the incredible price range for classic movies shown in the best image and sound quality currently possible for DCP, the Traverse City State Theater excels in virtually every area related to the theater experience.  Simply put, this is one of the best movie theaters in the country hands down and one more than worth going out of your way for if you get the opportunity.  After being dormant for so long, it’s really exciting to see it back in operation and special thanks must be given to Michael Moore for giving so much back to the Traverse City and Elk Rapids community, effectively making the upper peninsula of Michigan one of the hottest spots to show and see movies!  The Traverse City Film Festival itself is also a hot spot for celebrity participation and attendances, including a Stanley Kubrick retrospective where Malcolm McDowell was present for a Q&A following A Clockwork Orange.  If you look on the extras of your Borat DVD, chances are you will see footage of Sacha Baron Cohen on the center stage of the Traverse City State Theater alongside Michael Moore, as it had an early pre-wide release premiere at the theater.  What’s more, the Traverse City Film Festival Board of Directors itself is managed not just by Moore but by directors Terry George, Mark Cousins and Tia Lessin in addition to actors Jeff Daniels and Christine Lahti, in short providing a smorgasbord of unique Hollywood talents overseeing the prestigious programming and rollout of the festival.  All in all, this is one of the very best movie theaters you’ll ever set foot in and an experience every Michigan based filmgoer needs to have once in their lifetime.

- Andrew Kotwicki
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