Con Foster and the Bijou By the Bay

June 7, 2013

Con Foster

I have to confess: I am a huge fan of Michael Moore. One of the reasons has nothing to do with politics or his films. Almost 10 years ago, Michael did something that I didn’t think possible. He galvanized support, spent and raised money and brainstormed to lead a vast & diverse army of volunteers to restore the theater of my childhood, the State Theatre in Traverse City. While the successful and wildly entertaining Traverse City Film Festival has been a huge driver of the theater’s comeback, many overlook how his dedication to the movie-going experience created a theater that hundreds of people every day enjoy as part of a vibrant downtown experience. Of course after the Motion Picture Association of America tapped the State as #1 on their list of the best theaters in America, that number has probably gone down.

All this is a rather long-winded way of introducing Michael’s latest Traverse City cause, restoring the empty Con Foster Museum as a new theater – the Bijou By the Bay.  The story starts with Conrad “Con” Foster:

Manager of the State Theatre when it was originally known at the Lyric Theatre, he first arrived in Traverse City in July of 1917 as an employee of Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company to run and operate the Lyric. A true showman with a passion for the movies, one of the first things he did upon arrival was install a “newer and brighter” screen as part of his commitment to make the Lyric “equal to any motion picture house in the state.” It is this commitment to presentation the State Theatre continues today.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 21, 1875, Foster was not a Traverse City native, but the community embraced him and he quickly made the area his home. After less than a year in Traverse City, Fitzpatrick-McElroy transferred him to a new theater post in Wisconsin, and Foster spent the next six years heartsick, petitioning the company to bring him back.

Foster’s pleas were answered in April 1924 when he returned to Traverse City to resume his post at the Lyric. He placed an ad in the Record Eagle expressing his delight, writing:

“My ambition has been to return to Traverse City, since they made me leave, to operate what I think is the most beautiful theater in our circuit. I have come to love the city, its good natured folks, and have often told my wife that Traverse City is the place to make a home. So it is with great pleasure that I can announce that my longings have been realized and I have again been transferred to the best little city in the world.”

Over the course of the next sixteen years, Foster worked tirelessly to make the Lyric the best theater in Michigan. Ahead of his time, in the spring of 1929 Foster had the foresight to bring “talkies” to the Lyric, installing the latest state-of-the-art sound technology and film projectors in Traverse City. At that time, sound technician Walter Beck claimed this was the smallest city in the country, to his knowledge, to have installed this modern equipment.

Foster’s impact extended far beyond his movie house and into all aspects of civic life. He encouraged and promoted Cherry Festival programs, patriotic presentations and educational speakers. He knew the Lyric was more than a just movie theater, but an important gathering space for the community. Serving as head of the Chamber of Commerce, City Commissioner and even Mayor, Foster was committed to serving his community.

Foster managed the Lyric until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1940. The city mourned his loss, with a tribute in the Record Eagle claiming, “When Con Foster died this morning a part of Traverse City died with him, not a physical part, but a spiritual part.” Downtown businesses closed for his funeral and the Lyric reopened afterward to screen Gone with the Wind.

Foster also created Clinch Park, which is home to the proposed theatre. Find out more and how to donate at Bijou By the Bay.

More Traverse City on Michigan in Pictures!

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