By Rick Coates 10/19/09
Rick Schmitt chuckles every time he is asked if he and his partners were inspired to buy and renovate the Garden Theater in Frankfort because of the success of the State Theatre in Traverse City.
There is this assumption that we saw what had happened in Traverse City and decided to do the same thing here in Frankfort, said Schmitt. But we actually started this process before they did.
Schmitt, a Frankfort resident and vice president of sales and marketing at Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa, purchased the Garden Theater with his wife Jennie and Blake and Marci Brooks about two years ago.
We took ownership 18 months ago, but we started the process over five years ago, said Schmitt. It all started one winter night at a dinner party and everyone was talking about how great it would be to go out to the movies right here in town.
The Garden Theater opened in downtown Frankfort in 1923 and has remained opened since, but over the past 20 years the building had fallen into disrepair. When the heating system gave way eight years ago the previous owners closed in the winter months.
It took three and a half years of negotia-tions between us and the previous owners to finally reach an agreement, said Schmitt. While we own it our model is similar to that of a non-profit operation and in many ways the community is the real owners. In fact we formed a little company and sold shares to members in the community, both summer and year-round residents who shared our vision of having a theater in our community showing first-run films. This gave us the initial capital to keep the theater open and to repair it.
What really caught Schmitt and his partners off guard was the generosity of others in the community who stepped up to be of assistance.
When we took over the theater we had some major issues like the lack of a heating/cooling system, seats in poor condition and a terrible sound system, said Schmitt. Well, a group of citizens -- all retired -- heard what we are doing and walked in and donated the money for a state-of-the-art sound system. Others in the community organized a chair campaign and sold sponsorship for seats and raised enough to replace all 320 chairs.
We were able to add a state of the art heating and cooling system that is able to determine the number of people in the theater by measuring the CO2 and being able to adjust the climate based on that, Schmitt adds. Because the theater was not taken care of over the past 20 years there had been a lot of water damage to the art deco ceiling tiles. We figure we would just clean it and paint over it for the time being and at some later date we would restore the art deco look. Well, artists from our community heard about this and they would have no such thing. They spent hundreds of hours painting these tiles and restoring them to their original look.
For Schmitt and the others they have accomplished their goal and for the first time in years first-run films are showing in Benzie County.
We will not be open every day during the winter, but definitely on the weekends and occasionally we will be open on Thursday nights for a classic film, said Schmitt.
The impact has already been felt in Frankfort.
Just having the marquee lights on all the time has made a big difference, said Schmitt. We have some restaurants and shops keeping longer hours now.
The Garden Theater employs four people and received an economic development grant for job creation. Schmitt believes that the Theater is also having a positive impact on other businesses adding jobs.
So, have they heard from Michael Moore and others from the State Theatre and the Traverse City Film Festival?
Yes, they are very supportive. We have met with Film Festival manager Deb Lake a couple of times and there is a possibility in the future if they expand the festival beyond Traverse City that we would be part of the mix, said Schmitt. But here is an interesting connection: Turns out Michael Fitzhugh the architect behind the State Theatre restoration grew up in Frankfort. When he heard about our project he called us and told us he used to go to movies here as a kid and wanted to help. He provided his services pro bono to us.
Another similarity to the State Theatre is, this weekend, they will host the inaugural Garden Theater International Film Festival.
We will show eight films that were winners at various film festivals this past year, said Schmitt. Again the community has jumped on the bandwagon for this. We have people coming by with thank you letters and sponsor checks. We have sold quite a few weekend viewing passes. We also will offer the films ala carte.
As for the future, Schmitt says the next step will be to renovate the stage.
We had the Interlochen Jazz Ensemble in this past summer and it was a big hit. We want to repair our stage and offer Community Theater and musical performances year-round. Hopefully that will happen soon. In the meantime we will continue to focus on our mission of to screen exceptional cinema offerings in addition to first run films.
To learn more about the Garden Theater go to frankfortgardentheater.com
International Film Festival
Adam - directed by Max Mayer. Comedy/ drama about a man with Asbergers Syndrome and the woman of his dreams
Adventureland - directed by Greg Mottola. A coming of age story about a college student who accidentally ends up with the carnival job from hell.
Away We Go - directed by Sam Mendes. A couple expecting their first child travel around the U.S. looking for the perfect place to start their family.
The Commandant - directed by Stephen Pell. WWII Russian soldiers are trapped in a cabin with their commanding officer, who is badly injured.
The Dinner - directed by Karchi Pelrmann. A wry tale of a hapless pig farmer whose minor domestic accident turns into an unexpected catastrophe.
Man On A Wire - directed by James Marsh. Documentary about Phillipe Pettit, who walked across a cable between World Trade Center Towers on August 7, 1974.
Seraphine - directed by Martin Provost. Drama about the artist Séraphine.
Trouble the Water - directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. The story of aspiring rap artist Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband who were trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.