It’s hard to imagine downtown Traverse City without the warm beacon situated in the middle the Front Street’s 200 block, a light that helped lead the city toward the prosperity we now enjoy.
It’s also hard to imagine how the city’s downtown would look without the theater’s resurrection nearly a decade ago.
The State Theatre’s historic marquee spilled its soft light onto bustling crowds each night this week while festival fans packed the city’s center for the 12th rendition of the Traverse City Film Festival. That image of film lovers basking in the warm summer evening air, faces aglow with bright light thrown in all directions from the theater’s historic marquee, has become synonymous with late July in Traverse City.
But to those of us who call the Grand Traverse region home, that beacon means so much more.
We know that cornerstone as a place where our children experienced their first big-screen film for a price that couldn’t buy a pack of gum. It’s a place where we see the independent films, both old and new, that have become scarce in a block-buster world.
And it’s where we watch important cultural events happening in faraway places broadcast live to our community.
It is both an icon of downtown Traverse City’s evolution and a reminder of the city’s historic charm that keeps our feet planted firmly in the sand.
The movie house that started its life as Julius Steinberg’s Lyric Theatre in July 1916 burned twice and was rebuilt twice in its lifetime — the second reconstruction gave birth to the State Theatre and the landmark marquee. But those two rebuilds weren’t the theater’s most important resurrection.
The State closed as a movie theater in 1996 and, like many downtown Traverse City businesses, sat dark for many years while suburban sprawl pulled patrons seeking food, shopping and entertainment away from Front Street.
Many point to the State’s reopening under the flag of the Traverse City Film Festival in 2007 as the first domino to fall in a cascade that helped revitalize the downtown district. Empty store fronts filled. Businesses stayed open late into the evening as filmgoers flocked to Front Street for dinner and a movie. And investors bought and built on long-vacant lots.
It was a line in the sand that helped separate Traverse City from many of the economic problems that continue to plague many small Midwestern towns today.
It’s also a symbol of a community-wide effort that required a commitment not only from business owners, but from nonprofit organizations and thousands of community volunteers.
If not for the commitment of groups like Rotary Charities and the likes of Michael Moore the Film Festival’s co-founders, downtown Traverse City would look quite different today.
We all should celebrate State Theatre’s 100th birthday and recognize it as the beacon that helped lead Traverse City into prosperity.