6 Reasons To Love Pines Theatre in Houghton Lake

6 Reasons To Love Pines Theatre in Houghton Lake

I love going to the movies. There’s something enchanting about drifting away from reality and transferring my thoughts to the dilemmas of a fictional world while I sit back, relax, and stuff my face with popcorn.

Watching a plot line unfold, however, is only half the fun of going to the movies. Without theaters, we’d all be content with sitting in our homes and staring at our televisions (or, let’s face it, our computer monitors or phone screens) for hours at a time. The event of visiting a theater makes going to the movies an adventure, something we look forward to because we’re being engrossed and entertained by our environment the moment we step foot in the lobby.

Pines theatre houghton lake - The Awesome Mitten
The Pines Theatre has reminders of its history in every corner. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

I’ve visited a lot of unique theaters across Michigan, but until my recent Houghton Lake #MittenTrip, I’d never experienced a place quite like Pines Theatre. Built in 1941 by theater tycoons/brothers George and W. James Olson, the Pines has served more than two million patrons and continues to drum up a loyal crowd every week.

So, what makes this northern Michigan venue so special? Read on for six reasons to love Pines Theatre (and why you should visit during your next trip up north)!

1. Distinct Design and Decor

The Olson brothers owned several theaters across northern Michigan in the 1940s, and the Pines was created to be the premier location for their thriving market. Sparing no expense, the Olsons hired architect C. Howard Crane (who also designed Detroit’s Fox Theatre) to design the theater with a distinctly “up north” vibe. The building itself is constructed of pine logs (thus the theater’s name), built in post-and-beam style with log siding on the exterior.

Indoors, rustic décor mimics a hunter’s chalet—complete with a large fireplace, tavern-style chandeliers, and enough mounted animals to function as a taxidermy museum. The auditorium entrance is guarded by sinister-looking wildlife, while the movie screen is flanked by colorful murals from the 1950s and a light-up clock that helps deter visitors from checking phones during the movie. Throw in some really comfortable seats, and you’ll be brainstorming ways to channel this place in your own home theater before the movie even starts.

Pines theatre animal mount - houghton lake - The Awesome Mitten
Northern Michigan animal mounts are everywhere in Pines Theatre, adding to the “Up North” charm. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

2. State-Of-The-Art Technology

While it’s not uncommon for older theaters to lack in the technology department, Pines Theatre boasts state-of-the-art equipment for superior movie viewing. With top-notch digital projection and surround sound, you can enjoy the theater’s time-tested ambiance without sacrificing high-definition picture or sound quality.

3. It’s Kid-Friendly

Added in the 1950s, the Pines’ “Cry Room” is a favorite among local patrons. This sound-proof, windowed section of the theater offers a place where families with small children can talk and play while enjoying the show. This is a great option for families who might otherwise be apprehensive about attending movies with little ones.

Pines theatre cry room - houghton lake - The Awesome Mitten
A “Cry Room” allows parents with young children to enjoy a night at the movies without worrying about noise. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

4. The People

Ask any Houghton Lake resident what they love most about the Pines, and you’ll likely hear “the people” more than once. According to owner and manager Adam Fraser, that’s because the Pines makes it a point to have at least one or two of the devoted owners on staff every night, each of whom has invested years into the business (Fraser has been with the theater for 21 years, his parents, Louise and Steve, have been with the theater since 1988, and their business partner, Les Newton, has been with the Pines since the 1950s). Whether it’s at the box office or concession stand, one of these friendly faces is sure to greet you in between selling tickets and sweeping floors. In the neighborhood before movie time? Head next door to Attic Treasures Furniture, which is also owned by the Fraser family.

5. Commitment to Local

In addition to being locally-owned and operated, the Pines is also committed to supporting other area businesses and organizations. Throughout the year, the theater hosts multiple private events, including weddings, fashion shows, church films, locally-produced films, and matinees for local schools. The Pines’ commitment to staying local even extends to its concession counter — the fresh popcorn so many patrons love is grown just a little over an hour away in Hemlock, Michigan!

Pines theatre community events - houghton lake - The Awesome Mitten
Pines Theatre also uses its stage to host community events, such as weddings and fashion shows. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

6. The Memories

Whether you speak with a local, a tourist, or a theater employee, there’s a lot to be said about the history of Pines Theatre. With a legacy that stretches over 75 years, the Pines has seen multiple owners, renovations, and notable visitors (Charlton Heston once lived nearby and was a theater regular from the 1940s through 1970s!). The longest-lasting impressions, however, come from locals who have grown up here, out-of-town visitors who stop by every summer while on vacation, and families who continue to introduce younger generations to this small-town treasure. Here, “they just don’t build ’em like they used to” applies not only to this one-of-a-kind venue, but also a lifestyle focused on friends, family, and enjoying the simpler (finer) things in life.

Have you visited Houghton Lake’s Pines Theatre? Share your memories in the comments below!

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I’m Jennifer, a native Virginian trying her hand at living the Michigan life. I moved to the mitten with my husband in 2011, and since then, have been busy exploring the state and looking for the best of what it has to offer. So far, I have no complaints—except maybe that whole “longer winter” thing. But, hey—even that just gives me an excuse to buy more sweaters. When I’m not searching for new places or immersing myself in media news (I’m an advertising junkie), I’m usually writing stories for my blog, Wading in Big Shoes. I love connecting with new people, so feel free to find me there or at my Twitter handle, @JHBowman. In the meantime, I’ll see you around the mitten!
  • Peg

    Pines Theater – I lived in the Houghton Lake area when The Pines was just new. Almost every Saturday night, at the end of the work week, we would go to see the double feature. Besides the movies the best thing I liked about The Pines is there were several small shadow box dioramas built into the walls of the lobby. They fascinated me, and I would beg Mom to lift me up so that I could study those tiny scenes displayed there; to me they were like watching still movies!
    The only other shadow box dioramas that were near so interesting to me were The Thorne Miniature Rooms, at the Art Institute of Chicago. I think my love of miniatures started at The Pines Theater, so many years ago….

  • Wayne Rizor

    I remember going to the pines back in the early 1980’s and always enjoyed the atmosphere and its history. The shadow boxes contained photos from the days when Charlton Heston would bring his fellow movie stars to the Pines for an evening escape from his lodge on Russel Lake near St Helen. My father-in-law had a cabin in St Helen and he would often see Heston at the barber shop in St Helen.