When it opened in 1938, Manistee’s Vogue Theatre was a sight to behold with its art deco styling. It was once home to vaudeville acts, followed by a long run as a movie theater. That run ended in 2005 when the Vogue closed its doors, a sad day for movie lovers in Manistee.
It was a long downward spiral. I remember going there as a child and even then the rickety old seats were uncomfortable. The bottoms of your shoes would stick to the floor with an almost magnetic force, so sticky that after you left the movie and were several blocks down the street, your shoes would still make that suction-y noise on the sidewalk. Paint was peeling off the cinder block interior walls, and in high traffic areas the carpet was worn completely bare. By the time the last film finished its run, no one was really surprised to see the place shut down.
For over five years, the building sat for sale and in an ever-increasing state of decay. Huge chunks of stucco fell off the building’s exterior. The flat roof developed severe leaks, leading to mold issues throughout the building. Cracks snaked wildly through the brick facade. The poor old theater was literally falling apart.
In late 2010, the Manistee Downtown Development Authority made a bold move, purchasing the property for $65,000. Feeling out their strategy for moving forward, the DDA found support from filmmaker Michael Moore, who played a large part in rescuing and renovating Traverse City’s State Theatre. The community rallied together forming a nonprofit called the Historic Vogue Theatre of Manistee (HVTM), launching a massive fundraising effort and building a roster of about 500 volunteers who signed on for everything from construction work to fundraising to eventually selling concessions.
Fast forward about a year and things are finally starting to come together. One of the lead volunteers, Meg Voelker, makes a list of the progress. The old seats and much of the rest of the interior has been ripped out. The roof is being patched, which is a high priority; stopping the leaks will allow them to pump out the standing water in the basement. Then there will be the mold and other moisture issues to deal with. “So many other projects are waiting for the roof,” she says. “Once that’s done, we can really start getting to work. We want a visible beginning, so people can see that there is something going on there.”
Just like the State Theatre, the Vogue will rely entirely on volunteer manpower. Apart from four paid positions (a general manager, a volunteer coordinator, a projectionist, and a maintenance person), everything else will be handled be volunteers. “We’re looking at this on a smaller scale than the State, though,” Voelker says. “We’re not trying to be Traverse City. We don’t expect to jump right in hosting film festivals. But they have a great volunteer model, and we are basing our operation on the way they run.”
So far, the community response has been huge. “It’s infectious,” Voelker smiles as she talked excitedly. “So many people are excited to be a part of it. There’s one guy, a contractor, who stops by the visitor center just about every week to ask when he can start working.” The financial support has also been pouring in, with donations passing the $600,000 mark and steadily growing. It’s still a long way to the $2.5 million needed to complete the project, but Voelker is optimistic that the remaining funds will come in soon. Since the funds are being collected by the Manistee County Community Foundation, donations are tax deductible; with the end of the year rolling around, the Vogue is hoping for an influx of money.
If $2.5 million seems like a steep price tag, that’s because everything in the entire building will be top-of-the-line and beautiful. A representative from Boston Light and Sound has flown to Manistee several times to consult with architect Kendra Thompson, ensuring that the theater is designed to deliver the optimal movie-going experience. The new, comfortable seats are Michigan-made, coming from a company in Zeeland. The design even includes windows to allow the purchase of tickets and snacks right on the sidewalk.
Unlike the State Theatre, the Vogue will also offer first-run movies. The initial plans for the theater include restoration of the 250 seat main theater (including reopening the main screen balcony) as well as a 50-seat screening room. In an eventual second phase, another larger theater can be added upstairs. The theater’s offerings will include free kids movies on the weekends, cheap viewings of classic films, theme weeks, simulcast events, and other fun programming.
It’s not just the reopening of the movie theater that has Manistee abuzz. There is a flurry of new activity downtown, with merchants talking excitedly about the Vogue bringing people to River Street. A healthy, functioning movie theater will lead to a revitalized downtown district. Until the theater reopens, currently scheduled for summer 2012, the HVTM runs out of a small storefront across the street donated by the Manistee Inn & Marina. “We can use it as long as we need it,” says Voelker. “They’ve been very generous to us.”
That seems to be the spirit of the entire community, who are hungry to reclaim their long-neglected theater. “Manistee really wants this,” Volker says. “And we’re going to make it happen. And it’s going to be spectacular!” ~Rhonda Greene, Feature Writer