Manistee's Vogue Theatre plays starring role in downtown

For many months now the messages on the marquee above the Vogue Theatre in downtown Manistee acted as reminders that the quieted movie house had life left in it yet. There was, "Vogue The Sequel Coming Soon," "Vogue HQ Opens Here," "Happy 74th Birthday Vogue," and "Let's Do This!"

In recent weeks the marquee has come down. There are no words, no messages for passersby to read. But its absence is actually the biggest sign that movies--and much more--are closer than ever for the 75-year-old theater. The re-opening is much anticipated and needed in a county with no movie theater since the Vogue's 2005 closing. The lack of amenities like a movie theater has been linked to the difficulty of attracting doctors, and presumably other skilled professionals, to town--not to mention being a general bummer for movie lovers.

Opening day for the Vogue, which is being modeled after the successful, reborn State Theatre in Traverse City, is set for August, says Cyndy Fuller, chair of the Vogue Theatre board of directors. It's also largely guided by the State's founder, Michael Moore, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist.

The hope is to do for Manistee what the State has done for Traverse City, where a film festival turns Northwest Michigan into a Midwest version of Park City, Utah's Sundance Film Festival. The State Theatre is said to generate $5-$10 million in economic activity annually. Moore has also said he wants to bring theater-economics to his old hometown of Flint.

With the marquee down, the old seats and screens out, construction is speeding up. There will be two modern, new theaters housed in the historic downtown Manistee icon. A grand theater will seat about 210 and a small theater will have about 50 seats. It will be ideal as a screening room, a venue for indie films or a rentable event space, Fuller says, if the Vogue's $2.2 million fundraising goal is met.

After all, money is the linchpin in the Vogue's comeback. It costs a pretty penny for new floors, new seats that fit moviegoers whose heights--and other body parts--have grown in size since the Vogue opened in 1938. The theaters needed up-to-date sound and digital projection systems, larger screens and major interior and exterior repairs and improvements.

There's still about $700,000 to raise. Any day, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is expected to award a $500,000 grant to support the Vogue's role as economic stimulant.

The Vogue will be run as a nonprofit that's about promoting community gatherings, vitality in the local economy, quality movies, simple things like kids' movie days. It also could quite possibly become a future satellite venue for the booming Traverse City Film Festival.

The Vogue will not be about profits: Read: No $4 candy, $6 drinks or $10 buckets of popcorn. It's how the State Theatre in Traverse City operates: affordable prices but also an impressive independent film festival.

The State's executive director, Deb Lake, and Moore have provided a script to guide the Vogue's redesign, capital campaign and plan to rouse donors and doers to say, "Action."

"Only 60 miles away we had the State Theater sitting there as a model for us," Fuller says.

As Moore said at a fundraiser at the Vogue in February 2011, two months before fundraising and renovations began in earnest: "The people of Manistee are about to see what a popular, thriving movie palace can do for their downtown. They will return the Vogue to being the crown jewel of Manistee. We will turn on the Vogue's marquee lights, bring in some jobs, pump money into the economy and do it with a nonprofit venture staffed mostly by volunteers."

It was inspiring but also daunting: raising millions of dollars in a county of about 25,000 people.

"For a little town like Manistee, this is a big deal," says Fuller, formerly Manistee's mayor and a member of the Downtown Development Authority when the Vogue closed. The DDA made re-opening the Vogue a priority, asking consultants whether a movie theater was the best use of the building. It was. Another consultant was asked to determine if a nonprofit model was feasible. It was.

"Most examples of downtown revitalized theaters that we could find were nonprofits, not for-profits," Fuller says. "Because of that we began to look at how the theater should be run. We contacted the State Theatre. They basically confirmed in our minds that going the nonprofit route was the way to go. Michael offered his team to us, to mentor, to take us under their wing.

"... He has unbelievable experience. He understands the movie experience, the ratio of seating to screens, the experts in the field work with him, and because of him this theater will be an amazing place to see a movie," Fuller says.

While Moore's guidance was crucial, the Vogue is also relying on 575-plus donors and volunteers.

Some pick up hammers and tear out floors, others write checks and host fundraisers. Local boy Luke Herberger donated his lemonade stand proceeds to the Vogue after strolling by the theater one day with his mom and hearing the story of how much people missed the theater. The high school National Junior Honor Society donated $1,000, and individuals, local businesses, large companies and foundations have chipped in.

"Those kinds of things like Luke really tug at your heart," Fuller says of the 8-year-old, who donated $70 and stood on stage beside Moore when he came to town again in 2012 to drum up support for the Vogue.

"It's not just that the big checks are being written. We get people walking in off the street to drop off $20. Of course we're so also grateful for the $100,000 checks. It really makes you aware of how important that theater is to this community."

For Manistee, the economic spinoff is already being seen even before the first movie flickers, says Kathy Adair Morin, executive director of the Alliance for Economic Success in Manistee County.

"Not only will it provide a new all-ages entertainment venue, but even still in the construction phase it has been a catalyst for redevelopment in downtown Manistee," she says. "For example, a nearby 12,000-square-foot historic building that had been vacant for about four years is being rehabilitated and reopening as a restaurant that will complement the Vogue and provide additional dining options for the community as well as new jobs."

She says the restoration is also a great example of historic preservation.

"Instead of demolishing a blighted, functionally obsolete building, steps have been taken to work with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office to follow the federal… historic preservation guidelines to restore this incredible facility."

She says the Vogue will enhance already vibrant art houses: the nearby Ramsdell Theater and arts council.

It's about "place-making efforts already underway throughout the city and county," Morin says.

Within a few weeks a new marquee in the style of the 1938 original will go up. And it'll tell people that the Vogue is alive and well.

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode.
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