A newly revitalized theater in Clare, a draw for decades but closed during the pandemic, is bringing more people downtown and adding to the small city’s vibrancy.
Like other movie theaters across the country, the Ideal Theater closed its doors during the pandemic. The historic art-deco-style theater, designed by architect R.V. Gay, opened in 1930 and has been a mainstay in the Clare County city ever since.
Clare continues to maintain a vibrant downtown.
Many wondered about the future of the local landmark. located at one of the cornerstones of Clare’s historic downtown district.
“One day my sister, Sandy Wright, said, ‘You know what? We should buy the theater,’” recalls Lisa Benic, now the theater’s director. “It wasn’t for sale, but after speaking with the owner and touring the theater we all decided to move forward.
"The Ideal Theater was such an important part of our childhoods, and it’s a critical piece of Clare’s historic downtown. We felt very strongly that it needed to reopen for the community.”
Benic grew up in Clare with her siblings, Sandy Wright and Sue Leverence. They saw their first movies like “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” and “James Bond” at the theater.
In 2021, the siblings purchased the theater and began a lengthy renovation process to restore the shuttered place that held so many fond memories for many. Benic says she and her sisters learned everything about running a movie theater and connected with other independent theater owners across Michigan. They also worked hard planning, designing, engineering, and constructing their passion project.
The theater auditorium before the recent renovation.
The Ideal Theater opened up for a ‘sneak peek’ during the Clare Irish Festival, and had hundreds of visitors stop in for snacks. Their first movie screening test run was the 1985 film, “Back to the Future,” which attracted nearly 600 people. A ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception followed, near the end of March.
Renovation’s priorities were focused on comfort, safety, and accessibility.
Additions include added seating for up to 10 wheelchairs, expanded ADA-accessible restrooms, and a larger lobby space. The theater now has wider, ergonomic seats, an expanded balcony, and a new HVAC system. There’s also an enhanced sound system and a custom screen that can be moved to allow live performances on stage.
In addition to the restored facade, the aesthetic makeover has been a hit with many visitors. “We added some fun elements to the mix and have really enjoyed the reactions of our guests, who love the familiar, nostalgic feel of the auditorium contrasted with the new look and feel of the lobby and concession area,” Benic says. “The larger restrooms have been particularly popular.”
Keeping true to its original charm, certain historical elements have been retained. Walking through the lobby evokes a stroll back in time, to a 1920s streetscape with brick arches, carriage lights, and a streetlamp. The concession area feels like a small coffee house, featuring whimsical pendant lights and high counters. Once inside the warm red-and-gold auditorium, art deco beams and columns stand tall, and a decorative arch adorns the top of the stage, showcasing the screen.
“The 1947 popcorn popper has been retired, but it resides just inside the auditorium where everyone can see and appreciate it,” Benic says. “The old ticket counter and coin machine have been retained in a reproduction of the old ticket booth, and we’ve kept the old film equipment that was still in the projection booth.
“Our iconic 1937 marquee has been completely refurbished. We even discovered a section of marquee lights concealed under the drywall ceiling in the lobby that we were able to restore and light up again. We were able to preserve many elements of the theater, like the cast iron art deco seat ends, the skyscraper pendant light fixtures, and the decorative acoustic panels.”
The community of Clare has welcomed the theater’s return and is excited about the revitalization taking place on its streets, too.
“Clare has been very lucky over recent history,” says Jeremy Howard, city manager. “Though many towns experienced a loss of population in the 2020 census, Clare actually grew by four percent. We have a thriving downtown where there are virtually no vacant buildings and the shops, and businesses are destinations for people throughout Michigan.”
Howard says the community felt disheartened when the theater shut down during the pandemic.
“Many thought it may never open back up again,” he says. “Everyone was so excited when the rumors of its purchase and renovation started circling. It is wonderful having this right here in our community, and everyone is excited to see all of the ways the space will be able to be utilized for not only movies but for other community events.
“Investments like the theater are integral to tourism and serve as yet another reason for people to come to Clare and spend their time and money here locally,” he adds.
Many local ‘anchor’ businesses have stood the test of time and inspired many new up-and-coming businesses to plant roots in Clare, too. New businesses include wedding venues like The Tobacco Ranch, The Venue, a new brewery, Four Leaf Brewing, and other boutiques and gift shops that occupy local retail spaces.
The Doherty Hotel will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024.
Among historic landmarks, the Doherty Hotel
, located across from the Ideal Theater, is celebrating its 100th birthday next year. The Whitehouse Restaurant
has served burgers since 1932, and Cops & Doughnuts operates out of a downtown bakery dating back to 1896.
“Like many small communities, Clare has a rich history,” Howard says. “Clare is growing and thriving, but it is also important to not lose sight of the past and to try and maintain some of the original history and charm while still moving into the future.”
Other small businesses nearby, including the owners at Cops & Doughnuts
, are happy to see those theater marquee lights lit up again, too.
Greg “Ryno” Rynearson, president of Cops & Doughnuts, is all too familiar with historic businesses at risk of closing down forever.
Back in 2009, he was in a local coffee shop when he heard word that the Clare City Bakery was going to close after 113 years of operation. After chatting with some of his fellow police coworkers, they discussed pooling together some money to keep the bakery open.
“We got a hold of the current owner and asked if they were really closing it. They said yes, and so we worked out a deal to lease it with an option to buy,” Ryno says. “We renamed it Cops & Doughnuts, and we hit national and worldwide news on the first weekend of July 2009. We were crazy busy for six years, continued to grow, and we just keep going at it.”
Cops & Doughnuts began with just the bakery building and has expanded to include space in three storefronts on historic U.S. 27. He’s excited to see another memorable nearby space have a second life, too. Located just one block north of the bakery, the two businesses often share customers.
“The revitalization of the Ideal Theater is just unbelievable, they’ve put a lot of money into it,” Ryno says. “It was local gals that were born and raised in Clare, and their hearts are in the city, just like ours is.”
Being a part of a vibrant, successful small business in Clare makes his hometown even that much more special to Ryno.
“We're not that large of a city, we’re only 3,200 people, but our traffic counts are large,” he says. “This year at the bakery, we’re in line to have about 375,000 people visit our Clare location.”
The Ideal Theater hopes to expand offerings for those visitors, and include musicals, classic movies and animated films, private screenings, special events, and live performances in the fall.
“We’d like to partner with local restaurants for ‘date night’ offerings and perhaps open for coffee and tea on Saturday mornings,” Benic says. “The possibilities are endless, and we’re excited about trying some new ideas.”
Benic is proud to bring an exciting sequel to the theater’s local legacy. She’s heard many stories of yesteryear about the theater from locals.
“So many of our guests have a story or memory from the theater, and we love hearing them,” she says. “A surprising number of people have worked here in the past or lived in the apartment upstairs.”
The Ideal Theater, Benic and others say, has been such an important part of Clare’s history and downtown.
“It’s been our pleasure to open its doors again,” Benic says. “It is crucial to the vibrancy of the town, and our hope is that by offering affordable entertainment, nearby businesses will benefit, and our community will enjoy the unique experience of a nostalgic 1930s theater that you can’t get at a modern multiplex.”
Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at email@example.com.