Beer, music, art, and outdoor spaces. In the past 20 years, Grand Rapids has made a habit of creating new or rehabbing old venues to account for economic growth, evolving trends, and changing interest. And though we have plenty of entertainment in the form of niche eateries, breweries, live music and theatre, and more art events than you can shake a stick at, one form has been decidedly sparse downtown (aside from UICA and Wealthy Theatre) since the early 1970s: the movie theatre.
In 1944, Jack Loeks opened the Foto News Theatre at 123 Pearl St. NW in the former Powers Opera House. Showing only wartime news reels due to a monopoly on film distribution, Loeks took part in a lawsuit that rendered this practice illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948. From 1948 to 1972, freed from this monopoly, the newly named Midtown Theatre was downtown GR’s destination for cinephiles. According to HistoryGrandRapids.org
, a site run by the Grand Rapids Historical Commission: “It was noted for its perfect acoustics. The seating capacity was given in various places as 1,000, 1,200, and 1,700…and the interior was nearly six stories in height.
“Remembered for running The Sound of Music for over a year in the mid-1960's, the theater closed Wednesday, September 20, 1972.” In the decades that followed, the Loeks family focused on expansion throughout west and central Michigan that eventually saw the construction of Celebration Cinema North on Knapp and the East Beltline.
But with the focus on downtown living steadily shifting, the need for a movie theatre downtown made itself known once again. Enter Studio Park
, the 62,500-square-foot mixed-use development project designed with a brand new Celebration Cinema at its core.
According to Emily Loeks, granddaughter of Jack Loeks, Director of Community Affairs at Celebration Cinema and also board member of a variety of local organizations including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Local First, the Loeks family was approached by three sitting GR mayors to return to downtown and build a new theatre. However, it wasn’t until 10 years ago — when the lot on Ionia street became available for sale — that the idea of a downtown movie theatre began to take shape.
“There is something about the overall site development that has evolved over 10 years that I think has been accomplished,” says Loeks, who began exploring the site’s viability with her team a decade ago. Originally planning on developing just a theatre in these early stages, Loeks notes that the project quickly evolved into something “much more layered and interesting.”
Adding a hotel, apartments, and outdoor spaces, the intention of the project had evolved into one that would fit seamlessly into the existing fabric of Heartside, while improving the pedestrian experience. “[The project was] reoriented to align in ways that could accomplish changes in navigability to arena south,” says Loeks, who adds that a vital part of the development was beautifying the walkway alongside Van Andel Arena and eliminating surface parking lots and dead space that were difficult to traverse on foot.
“As a pedestrian, you’re really only several hundred feet from Fulton street,” says Loeks, about Studio Park’s location. “The connectivity of it all is actually quite manageable, she adds. “This starts to connect the dots.”
Loeks also aims to create a comfortable, neutral space that allows visitors to come downtown without a special event in mind. “Clearly, there has been a lot of investment in the city in recent years and decades. What Studio Park brings to the city that is kind of super important is kind of an every day landing spot,” she says. It’s the inviting atmosphere and variety of activities at Studio Park that offer the diversity of — and freedom from — choice.
A different experience
One of the many laid-back environments offered in the new Studio Park is the Listening Room
, a live music venue with a casual, bar setting. “We want it to be a place where you come in, you get a drink at the bar … the show starts, you [and] actually listen to the music,” says General Manager Quinn Matthews.
Large windows and a stage will greet customers at the Listening Room.
Formerly a touring musician himself and most recently working for WYCE radio, Matthews says the model of the Listening Room was based on a combination of many venues in which he performed around the country. “These are starting to become more common. Having a bar style setting … almost like old jazz clubs,” he says.
With only 200 seats, a bar, and a small-bites menu, the Listening Room has no pretense about being a big, showy event space. “It’s not that it’s just a smaller place. It’s seeing [the performers] in an intimate environment where they even feel different than when they’re at an arena,” says Matthews.
Already on the lineup for the Listening Room are The Verve Pipe, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and American Idol winner Kris Allen, among others. This wide variety of the venue is what gives it its charm. “A ‘listening room’ doesn’t mean that is has to be quiet music that is acoustic,” says Matthews. “It means listening to whatever type of music that is being performed.”
And this great variety means a proliferation of performances, with the venue booked four to seven nights per week with musicians putting on everything from blues to jazz, choral to pop and rock ’n roll.
Excited about this unique addition to the park, Loeks admits, “The listening room was the best after thought that we’ve ever had.”
The Listening Room's first concert will be held on November 6.
Something to eat
In addition to movies and music, Studio Park will also house its own original restaurant, One Twenty Three Tavern
, a nod to the 123 Pearl address of the former Midtown Theatre. Headed by General Manager Nick Duncan, One Twenty Three will feature American classics with modern twists, in addition to prohibition-style cocktails featuring house-made juices.
“[We wanted to] create that intimate setting to where people feel like it’s a good place to have a good conversation,” says Duncan, who previously worked for Dave & Busters, Hard Rock Cafe, and Biggie’s Sports Grill. Intentionally crafting a menu that filled a gap in the dining scene rather than directly competing with its neighbors, the Studio C team again hopes to fit seamlessly into the neighborhood.
“[We want to be] thoughtful stewards of that space,” says Loeks. “We don’t need a pizza restaurant on that site. Peppino’s is right across the site.”
One Twenty Three will open on October 9.
And of course…the movies
Let’s not mince words. This is a big project. The $160 million development includes not only a new Celebration Cinema, the Listening Room, and One Twenty Three Tavern, but also 106 brand new loft apartments; a hotel (Canopy by Hilton is a spanking new brand for the luxury hotel chain); local retailers like Pump House, Malamiah Juice Bar, Leo’s Coney Island restaurant and Funky Buddha yoga; and the headquarters of Acrisure, a global insurance broker, that will bring 400 new jobs to West Michigan.
“It’s the single largest private investment development in the city,” says Loeks. And the team at Studio C took their time. “When you have 10 years to design, you really do give attention to a lot of details,” she adds.
At the heart of it all is a love for movies, and the knowledge that this art form brings people together, in real time, to engage in other forms of entertainment in community. Opening in the coming weeks (the grand opening ceremony is on October 2) in the very center of downtown in Heartside, Studio Park is changing the face of the city, by returning to its roots of downtown movies for all.
Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.