TRAVERSE CITY — Thom Darga originally estimated renovations of the 78-year-old Con Foster Museum into a movie house would take about seven months start to finish.
Darga, though, with the help of a “thousand volunteers, tradesmen, and workers,” got the job done in two for the Traverse City Film Festival, just in time for the festival’s kick-off today.
A Grand Traverse County building inspector arrived at the new Bijou by the Bay shortly after 10 a.m. Monday for the facility’s make-or-break final inspection. An hour later, Darga -- the general contractor on the project -- had the final approval necessary to gain a just in-time occupancy permit for Monday night’s $500-per-person fundraiser, the official unveiling of the renovated theater.
“People wanted it to happen, and people wanted to do it right, and they applied themselves,” Darga said, pointing to volunteers washing windows and tradesmen applying the final touches Monday afternoon. “Every time I turned around there were three volunteers, or three plumbers or three carpenters, asking me what needed to be done and, before I could finish explaining, they were on it.”
Darga said it was fun making the project happen, but he acknowledged it became a little tense the last two weeks as the Monday deadline approached with the festival opening so close and no occupancy permit in hand.
“A younger man would probably say he would do it again, but I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime,” Darga said.
Film Festival officials expected about 180 people to attend the pre-festival screening of the Sundance jury prize-winning film, “The Spectacular Now,” Monday night followed by a reception hosted by part-time area resident and celebrity chef Mario Batali.
The festival officially kicks off today with screenings of the opening night film, Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” It continues through Aug. 4 with screenings of more than 150 films, including free outdoor showings at the Open Space and includes free panel and “Cinema Salon” discussions, a Film School, a Kids Fest and live music at Clinch Park.
Some 100 filmmakers and industry professionals are expected to attend during the week, including directors Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat”) and Michael Apted (“56 Up,” “The World Is Not Enough”) and Broadway performer Elaine Stritch.
The Bijou will host more than two dozen films during the festival.
Mayor Michael Estes called the finished theater “unbelievable” considering the building’s condition.
“In all honesty, I could not understand how they could complete it in time,” Estes said. “If the public knew what terrible shape the Con Foster was in, they wouldn’t believe it either.
One of Darga’s first experiences with the building involved his foot going through the roof. Bricks on the interior crumbled in his hands. Asbestos in the window glazing had to be abated, the roof replaced, floor dug out to create a slope, and all new electrical and plumbing systems installed.
The new Bijou reflects its beachfront location and provides a different atmosphere than its sister the State Theatre. A bright, swirling mix of blues resembling the bay on a sunny day covers the floor, while a mix of blues and greens with sand-colored counters for the snack bar and ticket office fills out the foyer.
Inside, moviegoers will find 174 wide, plush seats and walls covered with three-dimensional murals that reflect the shores of West Grand Traverse Bay and a sky-blue ceiling.
More than four tons of state of the art electronics will be used to present the movies.
“It’s just incredible,” Estes said. “If nothing else, the public should be impressed by what they have accomplished.”