February 26, 2021

Frankfort’s Garden Theater Sold

Nonprofit takes over, raising money to ready it for its next century
By Ross Boissoneau | Jan. 16, 2021

An innovative, eco-friendly move to include solar energy at the Garden Theater instead led to it being sold to a local nonprofit. Owners Rick and Jenni Schmitt and Blake and Marci Brooks signed it over to the Friends of the Garden Theater just before the turn of the new year, and the nonprofit is quickly raising funds to refurbish the iconic 96-year-old theater and bring it up to code.

The handover stemmed from when the owners were looking into the possibility of mounting solar panels on the roof of the theater three years ago. They were horrified to discover that the roof was so compromised that it needed to be replaced. Not only did the engineer they hired say they could not put solar panels on the roof but also, “We shouldn’t put snow on it,” said Rick Schmitt with a laugh.

That led the four partners to investigate how they might fix the vulnerable roof without compromising the historic theater’s architectural value. “The initial number two and a half years ago was $650,000,” Schmitt said. “It’s not just the roof, it’s the infrastructure that supports it.

“The estimate was a number we had to figure out. Once we got the information and digested it, we knew we couldn’t sell enough popcorn [to pay for it.] The company was a for-profit, but that was a misnomer — because there were no profits,” Schmitt said, noting the theater typically broke even.

They decided it would be more practical for a nonprofit to take ownership since a nonprofit could more readily apply for grants, and donations would be tax-deductible for donors. So the owners began working with local parties interested in saving the theater. The sale to the Friends of the Garden Theater became official when the papers were signed Dec. 30.

Amy Schindler is one of the members of the Friends and is enthused about the theater’s future. “The Garden Theater is such a cornerstone in our community. It has been and will be more than movies,” she said, noting that it’s successfully been used by schools and community organizations as well as for private events. “It brings business to downtown when the summer winds down.”

She said it’s important to undertake repairs and necessary improvements now, before age makes it even more difficult and more expensive. Schindler noted the Vista Theater in Negaunee in the Upper Peninsula had its roof collapse this summer after a heavy rain caused its drains to fail. She said the Vista is very similar in style and age to the Garden. It opened in 1926, just two years after the Garden. “We want to prevent that,” Schindler said.

As if the price tag for a new roof wasn’t hefty enough, any construction meant the theater would also need to be brought up to code in other areas, such as installing a fire suppression system and making the restrooms ADA compliant. The seven-member board is looking to raise a total of $2 million for the project. “It’s crazy how expensive it is. The goal is to raise $2 million and put $250,000 in a capital fund,” said Schindler.

This will not be the first time the Garden has seen major renovations. When Schmitt and his partners purchased the theater in 2008, its heating system had failed, and it was only open in the summer. In addition to replacing the entire HVAC system, they installed a state-of-the-art sound system. Local artists repainted and refurbished the art deco ceiling tiles, and a drive by community members enabled them to replace all the seats.

Schmitt is still involved as the chair of the nonprofit. He said many of the upcoming improvements will never be seen by the public. “It’s not sexy. When the theater was opened, it had a coal boiler [for heat]. Now we have to shore up the foundation where the coal chute was.”

Suzy Voltz was in attendance the last night the theater was open before the Schmitt and Brooks families bought it in 2008 (coincidentally, she was also in the audience for the last showing at the now-closed theater in Beulah, located where the Hungry Tummy restaurant is today).  Voltz said she’s attended numerous events at the Garden, from Kentucky Derby parties to the annual football game between Michigan and Michigan State. “We don’t have a community center in Benzie County, and they’ve allowed a lot of things. It’s wonderful,” she said.

Schmitt said he has hope the construction can begin by March, allowing the theater to open again as soon as July. That depends on a host of factors: acquiring enough in donations and grants, good weather for construction, and control of the pandemic allowing for the easing of restrictions. 

He believes the community interest in preserving the theater is evidence of the area’s generosity and vision. “It’s a tribute to everybody. Let’s save it for the next hundred years,” he said.

Anyone interested in contributing to the project can go to www.frankfortgardentheater.com and click on the Donate button.

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