Destination Film: Bijou by the Bay Theater - Michigan

I first became aware of the neighboring nonprofit theater to the Traverse City State Theater, known as Bijou by the Bay, during my last summer in the northern city region of Michigan.  Named after the French word Bijou which translates to ‘little gem’, this 150 seat theater is both small and yet a perfectly sized companion theater to the grandiose and oversized Traverse City State Theater comparatively.  Upon looking up the showtimes for the Traverse City State Theater which included programs for their recently held Traverse City Film Festival, I discovered much of the programming for the festival was shared between these two single-screen auditoriums.  What I wasn’t aware of was that much of the more mainstream programming went to the Bijou instead as the State Theater due to deed restrictions on the State Theater entailing it could only show films that opened in less than 200 screens in the US.  Part of a collective upstate restoration of the film scene in the upper-peninsula spearheaded by filmmaker Michael Moore compounded with donations by Richard and Diana Milock, the once dormant Con Foster Museum which was built by President Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration in the 1930s soon reopened in 2013 as the Bijou by the Bay

Located by the former Clinch Park Zoo which was recently renovated as a new tourist attraction just a few hundred feet from Traverse Bay, it’s impossible to enter the Bijou by the Bay theater without catching a scenic glimpse of the Grand Traverse Bay and the pavilion at Clinch Beach, giving moviegoers quite the eyeful to see before even setting foot in the lobby.  The theater marquee with its bright neon lit lettering and blue and white lightbulbs promises an old fashioned Hollywood experience and the quaint little lobby with its locally made snacks and bakery items make for a charming little theater experience.  

That’s nothing compared to entering the auditorium itself, which seems to have inherited the Clinch Park Zoo roots from previously.  Inside the auditorium to the left and right rear channel speakers are two giant bird nests housing a fake owl, a fake bald eagle and along the sides of the blue wall murals of the Traverse Bay with seagulls and swans roaming about are tree branches with even more mock up wildlife adorning the walls.  While not being much bigger than some of the smaller auditoriums at the Royal Oak based Main Art Theater, there’s so much to look at from an interior design perspective you will end up appreciating the deliberately small venue arrangement. 

Like the State Theater, the Bijou by the Bay is armed with a state of the art projection system with high quality image and sound presentation, giving viewers a flawless DCP presentation.  For anyone interested in donating to the theater, there are several ways you can leave your name behind including a chair plaque, private screenings, a brick sponsor or just have your name show up on the screen before any feature presentations begin.  Most unusual of all though is the location of the restrooms.  While most theaters including the State Theater place their restrooms in the lobby, the bar or otherwise outside of the main auditorium, the Bijou by the Bay theater has theirs located behind the front of the screen.  This means you can use the restroom area as an emergency exit and/or return to the screening without having to open any doors or shine any distracting daylight on the theater screen as with most auditoriums.  It’s a unique design I haven’t seen in many theaters and am hopeful more single-screen venues adopt this practice.  Overall, as an ongoing seeker of new theatrical venues with a keen interest in each and every offering they have compared to other competing auditoriums, the Bijou by the Bay is a cute little theater with comparably exacting technical standards set by the neighboring State Theater with an interior design that hasn’t forgotten the history left by the Clinch Park Zoo or taken away from the grand view of the Traverse Bay.  Very highly recommended theater I’m looking forward to attending again one day!

- Andrew Kotwicki