Take a Tour of Three Historic Northland Theaters
Look inside the Lake Theater in Moose Lake, the Ironwood Theatre in Ironwood, and the State Theater in Ely
In small towns across the Northland, historic movie theaters serve as the primary entertainment venue. Many of these theaters have been around for generations and mean a great deal to communities.
In Moose Lake, Minnesota, you can take a journey back in time at the historic Lake Theater.
“I’m fourth generation doing it. I have a nephew that’s working here, so he’s fifth generation,” explained Walter Lower III who grew up working in the Lake Theater.
His family’s business is one of the oldest continuously run movie theaters in Minnesota.
“A lot of people come and say, ‘Are you the owner?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m not. It’s the other way around. It owns me,'” joked Lower’s father, Walter Jr.
The Lowers opened their first theater in 1919, just after fire destroyed the city of Moose Lake. After eighteen years running the business, they built the Lake Theater in 1937.
“We’ve actually watched people grow up here we’ve been in the business so long,” said Walter III. They start coming when they’re a little child and then, after a while, they get married and they have their own family and then they start bringing their kids here.”
Attendance at the Lake has dropped off over the decades, but it’s remained consistent for the last several years. And the Lowers say competing for an audience with new technology is nothing new for them.
“The first thing that my grandfather took on was radio, believe it or not. They first had motion pictures and when radio came along, that was a struggle. Then obviously black and white TV, and then TV, and DVDs, VCRs, then you got satellite and now you got Netflix,” explained Walter III.
Even though a lot has changed in the last eighty-two years, the historic movie palace isn’t much different at all. Prices stay low and the community continues to support the local business that has become a landmark of their town.
“We still have the atmosphere. You can bring a date here, you can bring your family out here and sitting at home in your basement or whatever, you just don’t have the same feeling,” said Walter III. “Plus we got better popcorn. We got the best popcorn you can imagine, we take our popcorn serious.”
Meanwhile, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the marquee of a stunning theatre beckons crowds to Downtown Ironwood.
“The front doors from the street don’t look all that grand, you come into the concourse entrance and it gets a little more grand and then you walk into the theatre and you’re just completely overwhelmed,” said Bruce Greenhill, the operations director at the Historic Ironwood Theatre.
The theatre opened in 1928 at the height of iron mining on the Gogebic Range, but as the city’s population dwindled, the vaudeville house and movie palace fell on hard times.
“It closed in the early 80s and was dark for a couple of years and a group of people got together when word got out that there was talk of bulldozing it, knocking it down to make room for downtown parking,” explained Greenhill.
The city purchased the building and it went through a major volunteer-driven renovation from the late 1980s until the early 2000s.
“Without the Ironwood Theatre, we would have a huge deficit of culture here in the community,” said board president Zona Wick.
Today, the theatre brings all kinds of entertainment to the U.P., like silent films accompanied by an original organ.
“There’s a gentleman from Iowa that drives up here from Iowa every time we do a silent movie accompanied by our Barton organ,” said Greenhill. “That’s an experience that you don’t get in too many places.”
National touring acts like Peter Yarrow and Charlie Berens fill the Ironwood stage.
“The artist feeds off the audience, the audience feeds off the artist and it just works out to be a great production,” said artist liaison Vic Calore.
Plus, the theatre gives local performers and students an experience like no other.
“I think oftentimes, schools have taken drama and theater out of their schools and so that is an important role that we play here at the theater,” explained Wick.
The theatre is funded through ticket sales, grants, and fundraising events. It runs on a budget of about $200,000 per year, and it’s constantly being improved.
“We are currently in the process of doing an $80,000 upgrade to our speaker system, we’re continually upgrading our lights and other tech equipment because not only do audience members expect that, but performers now come into a theatre and they expect you to have the latest and greatest,” explained Greenhill.
Staff say the Ironwood is supported mainly by volunteers who understand the theatre’s value to Gogebic County.
“We’ve been here a little over ninety years now and I have no doubt that another ninety years from now it’ll still be here,” said Greenhill.
And in Ely, Minnesota, a five-year project is almost complete restoring another magical movie house to its former glory.
“It’s a vibrant sign of being prosperous again,” said project manager Tanner Ott. “It’s a vibrant symbol that Ely is a cool place where people want to spend time and spend time downtown.”
The three-hundred seat art-deco State Theater was built in 1936 and showed films until it closed in 2007.
“I used to bring my family here, my kids and eventually my grandkids. The last time I was here my grandson was probably four or five years old, he’s eighteen now,” said David Wigdahl, the chairman of Ely’s Historic State Theater Non-Profit.
Now, in an effort to restore activity in Downtown Ely, the State is being reborn.
“It’s brighter now,” explained Ott. “We were able to put some light fixtures in the ceiling so that the space could not only be a cinema but be used for business conferences or presentations.”
Building owner Alley A Realty is also renovating the space next door with plans to turn that into an additional smaller theater and concession area.
“A theater right in the middle of your town, it’s something that no matter who you are, everybody is excited about this project coming to an end and being able to use and enjoy the building again,” said Ott.
The $1.8 million project comes after two historic theaters recently reopened in Duluth: The Norshor on Superior Street and the West Theater on Grand Avenue.
Government officials and business leaders are making major investments in these projects because they believe in the value of entertainment hubs, especially in small towns.
“And while they’re here they’re not going to just run up and watch a film, they’re probably going to have dinner, they’re maybe going to shop in the shops, they may stay overnight in a hotel or at a resort or a campground, so I think it’s going to be good for the community in general,” explained Wigdahl.
The State Theater is expected to hold an open house on Thanksgiving and start showing movies and live performances in January.
“Even at night just driving into town, you see the marquee lit up with the big State on top, it just is like coming home. It’s like you see your friend up at the top of the hill so it’s pretty exciting,” said Wigdahl.
As movie attendance continues to fall nationwide, these small town theaters in the Northland are hanging on. Some are even growing and thriving, working to bring the cinematic experience to another generation.
“Sometimes everybody comes out and they’re all real happy, sometimes they come out and they’re crying. But that’s what you really want to do in the movie business is give them something to laugh at and something to cry about,” said Walter Lower III.