When sisters Lisa Benic, Sandy Wright, and Sue Leverence learned their childhood movie theater was still closed down a year into the pandemic, conversations between them lead to ideas of renovations and a grand re-opening of downtown Clare’s hometown theater.
Aiming to amplify the theater’s authentic architecture with accessibility and modernization, the sisters’ visions of renovations turned into reality.
Now reopened since March 2023, the Ideal Theater
showcases summer blockbusters, Saturday matinees, private screenings, and they’re even planning live performances in the fall (thanks to a new movable movie screen which allows extra space on their stage).
Discover more about the history, renovations, and charm of Clare’s Ideal Theater in this Q&A with Lisa Benic.
Lisa Benic chats with Epicenter inside the newly renovated Ideal Theater at 609 N McEwan St in Clare, Michigan. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)Epicenter:
What was your first reaction when you heard about the Ideal Theater closing in 2020?
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Ideal Theater closed along with every other movie theater across the country. Obviously, no one knew how long those closures would last, but when the theater was still closed a year later, we felt strongly that we needed to do something to ensure that it reopened as a movie theater again.
So, many small-town theaters have closed permanently, and we didn’t want to see that happen in Clare. The theater here is such an important part of the town’s history and community. We grew up with this theater and saw our first movies here. We wanted that tradition to continue in our town.
Can you tell us more about the conversations you and your sisters had that ultimately lead to you opening it back up?
The conversation literally started with, “You know what? We should buy the movie theater.” It seemed a little crazy, but the more we talked, the more feasible it seemed. We connected with the previous owner and toured the theater. It needed a lot of work—particularly with all the new post-COVID requirements—but we had a vision, and we felt confident we were meant to renovate it and reopen it for first-run movies.
What professional backgrounds do you and your sisters have? Have any of you been in the theater or entertainment industry?
Our backgrounds are not in theater or the film industry.
The primary owner, Sandy Wright, is an attorney who also owns a property management company. She has a background in construction litigation, so this combination provided a great foundation for the purchase and construction planning.
Our sister, Sue Leverence, is an architectural designer with vast experience designing commercial spaces. She has a wonderful eye for design and functionality, and she helped us put our vision on paper for our architecture and construction teams.
My background is primarily in information technology with specialties in operations and project management, so my role during the construction phase was to manage the project and get the business up and running. Now I’m managing day-to-day operations.
Somehow our professional backgrounds positioned us for this project. It’s like it was meant to be!
What kind of renovations did you do? We would love to hear some of the details!
Our priorities when we began the renovation were rehabilitation, safety, and accessibility. We wanted to retain and restore as much of the 1930 architecture as possible while modernizing for safety and comfort.
Clare's Ideal Theater prior to renovations. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Benic)Clare's newly renovated Ideal Theater. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)
This entailed reworking all the ventilation, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems along with massive cosmetic renovations.
We expanded the lobby and concession area to allow for better traffic flow and space, and then used the old concession space to expand our restrooms for wheelchair accessibility.
Ideal Theater's lobby prior to renovations. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Benic)Ideal Theater's concession area prior to renovations. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Benic)The lobby of Clare's newly renovated Ideal Theater, complete with a star-gazed ceiling. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)The concession area of Clare's newly renovated Ideal Theater. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)
An ADA seating area that can accommodate up to ten wheelchairs was added, and the balcony area was expanded. The seats were replaced with wider, ergonomic seating and more space between rows, and we installed a custom movie screen that can be moved out of the way to make room for live performances on our stage.
Ideal Theater’s new ADA seating area can accommodate up to ten wheelchairs. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)Ideal Theater's updated seats with wider, ergonomic seating now available for movie-goers. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)
The brick façade of the building has been completely restored along with some beautiful copper trim that was hidden under several layers of paint.
A wall once stood here, separating the lobby from the concession area. Now, these brick arches match other restored brick façade elements, bringing the exterior look in. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)
We restored many of the iconic elements of the theater, like the neon clock, cast iron seat standards, skyscraper pendant light fixtures, hardwood stage flooring and acoustic panels.
Clare's Ideal Theater prior to renovations. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Benic)Lisa Benic and her sisters restored many of the iconic elements of the theater, like the skyscraper pendant light fixtures, hardwood stage flooring, and acoustic panels. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)Lisa Benic and her sisters restored the Ideal Theater’s original cast iron seat standards. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)
We also restored our beautiful marquee, which was originally installed in 1937, and we even found some additional marquee lights under the ceiling in the foyer that we were able to uncover and light up again.
When was the first day that you opened your doors? And what has the feedback from the Clare community been like since then?
We re-opened our doors on Saturday, March 18th
, just in time for Clare’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival. Hundreds of people visited that day to see the new lobby and purchase popcorn and hot cocoa.
Our first movie started the next day when we showed the classic 1985 film “Back to the Future.”
We’ve had great crowds and an incredible amount of support from the community. Feedback has been so positive! So many of our patrons share their memories with us when they come here. They remember their first movie, or they worked here, or they lived upstairs in the old apartment.
It’s amazing how many personal connections this theater has for so many people. It’s “their” theater!
What big summer and fall plans do you have in store that you want to share?
Summer is traditionally blockbuster season in the movie world, and we’ve stayed very busy with some great summer films.
We are very pleased to be offering Saturday morning matinees, too. These are $2 family movies that benefit the REAP Food Pantry.
We’ve done several private screenings for school and church groups, and we are scheduling our first live performance in the fall.
We’re planning to offer weekday matinees featuring classic films or musicals, and we’d like to continue offering family matinees on Saturday mornings throughout the year.
Is there anything else you’d like the community to know?
We’re so grateful to be a part of this amazing small town, and it’s been such a pleasure to bring the theater back to life. It takes a village to restore a theater, and we could never have done it without the help and support of so many individuals and organizations in our community.