The nonprofit Manistee Civic Players presents five or six shows each year at Ramsdell Theater, a 465-seat, 110-year-old restored venue listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We caught one of the six sold-out shows of White Christmas in December 2012, and it was fun to watch the actors’ friends and family members enjoy what is clearly a popular local holiday tradition. We were also able to snag a tour of the theater earlier in the day, which added interesting historical context to the performance. (If you happen to visit during Manistee's Victorian Christmas weekend, 45-minute tours are offered for $5 throughout the four-day event.)
Frederick Ramsdell, the son of the theater’s benefactor, T.J. Ramsdell, painted the dome in the main theater and the two lunettes in the lobby in 1903. The theater made a strong initial showing, then endured decades of economic ups and downs reflective of the times. Award-winning actor James Earl Jones got his start in the Ramsdell Theater summer stock program in the 1950s, where he performed as Othello on this stage. (He’s returned twice since to help the theater with fund-raising efforts.)
In a show of true community spirit, the town of Manistee came together in the 1990s to make renovations the theater so badly needed—a multimillion-dollar, decade-long undertaking that included professional restoration of the paintings. Local Boy Scouts pulled out all the old seats and a local electrician repaired and polished hundreds of light fixtures by hand. Today, the lovingly restored theater remains a proud survivor.