Suttons Bay community to adopt Bay Theatre?

Bob Bahle and the Bahle family have owned and operated the Suttons Bay Theatre since 1976.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Erik and Bob Bahle called for help, and the Suttons Bay community answered.

The Bahle family, who have owned the Bay Theatre since 1976, held a public forum on December 11 in hopes that someone would step forward and continue to operate Leelanau County’s only movie house. The Bahles announced that they were retiring from the movie business at the end of this year.

A standing room crowd of more than 200 citizens attended the forum, thanked the Bahles for running the theatre, and implored the family not to shut the doors on the community treasure.

Within a week of the forum, Erik Bahle reported that Rick Andrews and Suttons Bay resident Kate Thornhill have assembled a small and capable advisory team to look at taking over theatre operations starting Jan. 1.

The plan will be to establish a short term (60-to-90-day) management agreement to maintain seamless continued operations without ‘going dark’,” the younger Bahle told the Sun. “During this time a more complete management agreement with an option to purchase the building and associated assets will be drawn up. … Yes the building is for sale to a group like this.”

All of this will be conducted in the community eye with as much opportunity for comment and feedback as possible,” he added.

The Bahles were impressed by the community turnout on December 11.

I saw the full house, I saw standing room only and I couldn’t help but get a tear in my eye,” said Erik. “There continues to be an overwhelming amount of community support and I can’t begin to describe how great it feels to know we have an involved and supportive community.”

He added that in addition to new owners and managers, a devoted volunteer base will be required to run the theatre.

But I think it’s a safe bet that we are going to have a healthy, small-town community theatre in the coming months.”

The theater has meant a lot to Suttons Bay over the years.

Internationally renowned musicians from John Lee Hooker to Taj Mahal have played there. So have Midwestern folk music stars from Greg Brown, to Chris Smither, to Claudia Schmidt. In the 1990s, the Bay Theatre showed films adapted from books by late author Jim Harrison, who used to live in Lake Leelanau. The Beyond the Bay series brought international films, paired with ethnic cuisine at Hattie’s Restaurant, which has since closed.

The Kleinfelters, who owned the Bay Theatre before the Bahle family bought it, showed Spanish-language films in the 1960s and ’70s for Leelanau’s sizable migrant worker population.

Tom Kleinfelter, Jr., remembers his family showed two or three Mexican films each week during the summertime—one on Wednesday and two on Sunday.

For the migrant farmworker community, Spanish-language films were the thing to do in town,” he said. “We had a higher turnout and made more money on those films than on English films.”

On Sundays, the theatre would often sell out, as families came from all over Leelanau County, lined up by 11 a.m. and stayed for the double feature.

This was a huge cultural event for the Hispanic community,” said Kleinfelter. “Guys would wear their cowboy boots, and women came in their best dresses. The theatre marquee advertised films in Spanish.”

The advent of the cherry shaker led to a significant decline in the Hispanic migrant worker population. By the mid-70s, the Bay Theatre no longer showed films in Spanish.