SUTTONS BAY — When Chris Bahle drives through Suttons Bay, there’s a certain set of shining lights that means more than others.
The Bay Community Theatre’s marquee continues to illuminate the movie offerings and its doors open each night to welcome patrons — a far cry from the dark bulbs and shuttered doors it might have been.
In November 2018, the Bahle family — who had owned and operated the theater since 1976 — announced plans to find a new owner or close the theater by the end of the year. Several members of the Bahle family helping run the venue were set to retire, and those remaining “didn’t have the energy.”
Community members had a different plan, and a week after a public forum, a group filed paperwork to register Bay Community Theatre Organization as a 501(c)3 nonprofit with the State of Michigan.
“We were pleased at the interest from the community,” said Chris Bahle, who previously served as the theater’s accountant. “We didn’t realize that that was out there, so it was a pleasant surprise when that came together and there was a path forward for the theater.”
The nonprofit group, led by a board of directors, took over the business Jan. 1, 2019, leasing the building from the Bahles. The need for a lease ended Dec. 30 when the organization and Bahle family closed on the building’s sale, board president Rick Andrews said.
The nonprofit purchased the property — which includes the adjacent building — for $695,000, he said. Andrews said the organization made a downpayment and the Bahle family offered a mortgage, although he declined to get into the specific breakdown.
It’s hard to put a value on a small-town theater, but the price they arrived at is fair for everyone, Chris Bahle said.
“From the very beginning, we as an organization thought, No. 1, it’s important we get involved and try to do this and save this theater for its cultural, educational and economic value,” Andrews said.
There’s no question the Bahles were supportive of the venture from the start, but the nonprofit still required reassurance that the property wouldn’t be sold to developers who might remove or repurpose it, he said. To avoid negating all the time, money and effort people donated, they had to buy it themselves, Andrews said.
A capital campaign to raise $1.3 million over the next few years soon will officially launch, he said. The objective of the campaign is to: No.1, pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible, and No. 2, upgrade the building’s seating, screens and lighting, Andrews said.
It’s gratifying to see the public rally behind The Bay and carry it forward, said Bob Bahle, who managed the theater for 30 years.
Andrews and other involved in the nonprofit are going to have to work hard to reinvent the theater, Bob Bahle said. A nonprofit manner is the only way it’ll work and it takes a lot of people to make a nonprofit work, he said.
“It’s a competitive environment out there — now more than ever with the streaming of all this content,” Bob Bahle said. “So finding people that are passionate about cinema and events in their local community is what’s going to drive it forward.
“You’ve got to try to appeal to all different ages out there and it can be hard with a one-screen theater,” he said.
But the message that The Bay is important and meaningful to the community shows in attendance numbers, Andrews said. Attendance in 2019 exceeded 16,000 — up 44 percent from 2018, he said.
“You think, ‘In that little community, how could that be?’ but day in and day out, people are coming,” Andrews said.
They’re looking to keep that momentum going in 2020, which means great programming — live events, films and a combination of the two, he said. There are plans for a spring film series, live music on St. Patrick’s Day, a fundraiser for Northwestern Michigan College and more, Andrews said.
When they show “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — a film based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod — they’ll have a speaker who knew Rogers and worked with him for years, Andrews said.
“I’m looking forward to going to the movies this year, and in future years,” Chris Bahle said.