Situated at a center point of River Street, the Vogue Theatre is clearly the beating heart of the downtown district. This beautiful, state-of-the-art theatre is a seamless blend of elegant history and modern technology. Its story is a fascinating one that tells in three acts: originating as a town jewel, followed by a long and relentless period of decay, and finishing with a remarkable metamorphosis, fueled by energy from an entire community unable to accept the loss of its movie theatre.
Launched by the Butterfield Company, initial construction of the Vogue was completed in January of 1938 and was praised as one of the most modern theaters in Michigan. Designed with elegant simplicity to provide every comfort without distracting from the picture, the auditorium was painted in soft blues with warmer colors and decorative wood trim enhancing the lobby. Even the iconic “Vogue” vertical neon sign was included as part of the building design to be an integral part of the building as well as a beacon visable up and down the street as well as across the channel.
The technology for the Vogue was cutting edge. It boasted not one, but two Simplex motion picture projectors with the latest high intensity arc lamps. A new type Western Electric wide range “Mirrophonic” reproducing sound system with “every modern appliance for perfect talking picture presentation” promised to bring out a full richness of volume for every sound and word spoken. And for the comfort of the patrons, the theatre included an air conditioning system and large boiler for heat.
The first event at the Vogue was a romantic film called “Hitting a New High” starring Lily Pons and Jack Oakie. Two days later, it was the Marlene Dietrich classic, “Angel.” A visit to the movie cost 35 cents for a main showing and 25 cents for a matinee.
The grand opening on January 12, 1938, welcomed Manistee residents to an Art Deco movie palace that could seat 606 on the main floor, 168 in the mezzanine and 161 in the balcony. It was a huge success and a boom for the entire downtown including local eateries like The Diana, The Ross Cafe, The Vogue Grill, The Boston Cafe, and City Drug’s popular soda fountain.
For decades, The Vogue remained at the center of the community, bringing the hits of Hollywood to movie goers in Manistee, Michigan. However, the passage of time took its toll and the once glorious movie palace began to show its age. Leaks in the roof, torn and broken seats, along with outdated equipment and plumbing, drove audiences to find other venues.
In 1984, the Butterfield chain dissolved. Though some of its theaters were purchased, the Vogue, which had been operating in the red, attracted little interest. Eventually purchased by a downstate man and his partners, the Vogue was leased and operated on and off for the next 25 years, till it was finally closed and the marquee lights turned off. The building, once beautiful, was now an eyesore with a crumbling facade that was becoming a hazard for people walking by. Hard decisions needed to be made. Perhaps the building would need to be torn down and the Vogue’s story would be over.
However . . . understanding the importance of a movie theatre to a thriving downtown, the Manistee Downtown Development Authority purchased the building in 2010. Their immediate goal was to halt the decay and stabilize the building by patching the roof, repairing the roof drains and securing the crumbling stucco. Their hope was to restore the Vogue to operation, though the task was daunting.
In February of 2011, with a quirky twist of fate, filmmaker Michael Moore took a detour through downtown Manistee and spotted the Vogue. His successful history included spearheading the revival of the State Theatre in Traverse City and the Vogue looked prime for a revival of its own. Moore and his team from the State added some star power to the existing efforts of the Manistee Downtown Development Authority and a growing group of motivated Manistee residents to organize a fund raiser to start the ball rolling. Soon, the non-profit, Historic Vogue Theatre of Manistee was created and the property was transferred to the new organization.
In a flurry of activity covering two years, funds were raised, contractors were hired, and armies of volunteer organized and got to work. Even the staff of the local Home Depot joined the effort. The original theatre was gutted, and replaced with two beautiful, well-appointed viewing rooms. The lobby, concessions area, and cafe area are now fresh and welcoming – staffed by smiling volunteers. Once again, the Vogue can boast of having “state of the art” projection and sound equipment, and the latest film releases grace the two big screens. Movie buffs can attend Wednesday morning showings of movie classics, and on Saturday mornings, kids’ movies rule the day. And yet, even with all the modern enhancements, the feel of the historic Deco theatre is still intact. The 1938 tile lobby floor was carefully protected and preserved during the construction and the original Deco style was a consideration for all of the decorating choices in the theatre.
Once again, the glowing lights of the marquee shine brightly on River Street and the enticing aroma of fresh popcorn beckons those passing by. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of residents and movie fans – as workers, story tellers, fundraisers, contributors, supporters, and patrons – the historic Vogue Theatre proves the heart of the Manistee downtown district is beating strong. This community loves its thriving movie palace and I love the fighting spirit of this small town that refused to let it go. Happy 80th birthday Vogue Theatre!