The Beautiful Temple Theater in Saginaw was minutes away from being crushed into oblivion. In this episode, Thor Rasmussen talks about the passion one man had to not only save this beautiful building but to restore it to it’s previous glory. And how does this small venue compete with much larger venues in the area?
In this episode, we talk about
- The history behind the Temple Theater
- What it took to bring the Temple Theater back
- What plans the staff have to continue this proud tradition
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Thor Rasmussen: It’s interesting to think about that, the way that, we can. Experience, an event or a show. And the impact that the environment has on that and the memory that that creates, well into the future, that’s something that we’re conscientious about, especially when we have young people or youth in the theater, the way that they, they walk in and, they look at the chandelier and they just say, Wow.
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This is the Call of Leadership podcast.
Hello everyone and welcome back to the Call of Leadership. Today I’m sitting with Thor Rasmussen and we are inside of the beautiful Temple theater located in Saginaw, Michigan. He is the, marketing manager of the, uh, of the, of the theater Temple. And Thor, welcome to the show.
Thor Rasmussen: Well, thank you so much for having me. me.
Cliff Duvernois: Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.
Thor Rasmussen: you, you So I grew up downstate. I grew up in the metro Detroit area, mostly in Sterling Heights, and then moved to, to Rochester. I went to Oakland University. Initially I went and, uh, I got a business degree, started, uh, in marketing.
So I, I grew up in, uh, a much larger metropolitan area than, uh, Saginaw. Uh, but, uh, you know, I’ve, I’ve come to love Saginaw for, for what it is and, uh, the size of town that it is. You can really get around, around here in a way that the Metro Detroit area, uh, doesn’t offer. So, in, in that sense, um, I was glad that I grew up where I did, and I’m glad that I’m living where I’m at now.
Cliff Duvernois: more because if you think about it, where the, the Temple Theater just located at, we’ve got the 675 freeway, like right there. Like literally it’s two minutes from the freeway.
So it’s easy access for people to come here.
Thor Rasmussen: Yeah, absolutely. Um, uh, you know, I’d, I’d pass AAW as my family took vacations, uh, up north, but was, it was a exit ramp that we didn’t ever exit. So, you know, the accessibility of Saginaw specifically here, downtown Saginaw with the Temple Theater is really extraordinary. And, um, it’s, it is easy to access from the Detroit region, the metro Detroit area.
And we’re working towards, uh, hosting programs that. Attract, uh, guests from, uh, outside of our, our direct region and, and pull them, pull them a little further north from, uh, a place like, uh, Clarkston or some of the northern suburbs. it’s as easy to get to the Temple theater as is to get to downtown Detroit.
And we like to think that, uh, the, the, the parking and drive up is a little bit more pleasant too.
Cliff Duvernois: Let’s talk about. The history of this building. So talk to us a little bit about, uh, when it was built, what were some of the circumstances under which it was
Thor Rasmussen: Sure. Yeah. So the Temple Theater, uh, was built in, uh, 1927. It was, or opened in 1927. It actually only took, um, a short period to build because the Butterfield theater chain that was building the theater was also building theaters all over the, the country. Uh, so they had had a, their processes in place to be able to quickly construct the, the theater.
Cliff Duvernois: almost like a franchise
Thor Rasmussen: Almost like a franchise model. Yep. And, they were, uh, responsible, for building the building. Um, and they leased it, from, the Shriners. So the Shriners provided the funding and then. Butterfield, um, you know, leased it. And at that time, 1927, this is, uh, just prior to the Great Depression, the theater was mostly vaudeville and, uh, movies, silent movies.
Uh, were still a. Fairly popular at that time. So we do still have an organ that was played along with the movies at time. so through the, through the Depression era, the theater was able to continue to thrive and survive because people were looking for a way to, get out and escape in a sense.
Some of the troubles of, of the daily life and, and the theater provided, another world, uh, experience. Uh, when you go to see a movie or a show, it has that effect of being someplace outside of, of the daily life. From there, the, the, the theater went, uh, through, uh, a period of, uh, growth and, and then, but then also a period of decline.
So in, um, The seventies, sixties, late sixties, seventies, bigger movie houses were opening up. The development of the downtown area, um, con, contracted, and, uh, the theater fell into disrepair.
Thankfully there was a, a group that continued to work toward trying to keep the theater open. And, uh, in 2002, uh, there was a philanthropist, Dr. Shaheen, who, decided to purchase the building. Uh, it was gonna be, uh, torn down. Uh, the wrecking ball was in, in the parking lot, and, uh, he put a roof on the building and saved it through that winter. And then, uh, proceeded to restore, the theater to the opulence that is today.
Cliff Duvernois: So what I’d like to do is, I’d like to just take a step back here and kind of talk a little bit more about the, about the, the history of the theater, especially when it was first founded.
Cause you were talking about the Butterfield and building theaters all over. Now was initially, was this meant to be more of a playhouse or more of a movie theater? Or maybe both.
Thor Rasmussen: Yeah. A a little bit of both. So, um, uh, you know, it was, it was showing, showing movies and, it was a movie house, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t the only, uh, theater in town either, you know, the. Theater was the, the center of the entertainment life, uh, during that
cause there’s no
there’s no Netflix, there’s no TikTok, there’s no, there’s no, uh, Instagram, there’s, there’s, uh, there’s less compe competition in a sense for those entertainment dollars.
The, the, the entertainment do, uh, you know, was the theater and. It was how people were,
Cliff Duvernois: were
Thor Rasmussen: were entertained,
Cliff Duvernois: Cause I think, you know, going back in, in time, putting this into historical context of what was happening, you know, not only in the nation but in the world is, this is right about the time where, you know, film had been developed.
They now had machines to actually show movies.
Thor Rasmussen: Mm-hmm. ,
Cliff Duvernois: And Hollywood’s realizing that this could be a real big money maker for them, and they’re building out their studios. And like you were talking about silent films. So now for the Butterfield, they’re wanting to proliferate theaters all over. The nation because the more theaters have showing movies, the more money you’re making, the more you know.
Well, I know that I think for the movie houses, the, the, the concessions are more in house than they do float over to Hollywood. But the, the films, the more, the more theaters you have out there showing the films, the more money you can make.
Thor Rasmussen: yeah. You know, I, I, I’m not the expert on, uh, Butterfield. We do, we do have a historian that, uh, knows far more than than I do. But I, I, I will say that it’s, it’s interesting to think about the way that, that partnership came together, between the, the, the Masons, and Butterfield. So the, the funding side of things with the Masons and the sort of willingness to, to build the theater, uh, with
Cliff Duvernois: Now, you referenced before that there was a time where this. Building fell into disrepair, probably maybe from, you know, lack of usage. People just weren’t interested in coming here. Why do you think that was?
Thor Rasmussen: I think that there, there started to be some more of that competition for the entertainment space and, uh, the theater had difficulty keeping up with that. I am grateful for the, those that were involved in maintaining the theater and, working to, to, you know, keep it going the way that they did.
But I, I think that there, there became more things in the marketplace, so to speak, uh, to, uh, influence people and how they use their time and in, in some senses. That’s something that we continue to, deal with even today, maybe on a, in a different way. But we need to continue to evolve and develop programming that, patrons appreciate and are willing to come to the theater to see
Cliff Duvernois: appreciate and I definitely wanna make sure that we dive into that more cause I would love to explore that particular topic in the early two thousands. A group decided that they wanted to do something with this building, right? And bless their hearts because this, this building is beautiful.
The interior that I’ve seen in here is just extraordinary for audience. You can see photos of it online, but this place is every inch that those photos make it to be.
So Dr Shaheen decided that, You know what? This building’s too beautiful. I’m going to buy it. We are going to preserve it. Can you talk a little bit about the, the vision?
That he had coming in here for this theater. And I would almost have to say just the general impact of the community, cuz there’s probably people here in this community that probably remembered the theater when it was in, Its all of its glory and were sad to see this building ripped down. So if you could talk to us a little bit about that vision.
Thor Rasmussen: Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting to think about the, the history of the theater in, it’s longevity because there are, there are patrons who, uh, you know, had, have worked, had worked here a long, long time ago.
And, um, so, part of that vision that Dr. Shaheen had, um, was to maintain the theater as a, a place of connection for the community, um, and to, really provide a space that people can come and, uh, uh, a point that the downtown needed.
It needed an anchor in that entertainment element. And so I. Seeing that and having that vision and having that vision realized was was part of what. He wanted to do. And, um, you know, he was, for those who may know Dr. Shaheen or have known Dr. Shaheen, he was, he was a, a, a man that got things done. And, um, the best was put into the theater in terms of the, the design and, uh, the restructuring of the seats and some of that, uh, things that people don’t see in the hvac.
And, uh, you know, it’s still. It’s still a 95 year old theater, so sometimes that’s a challenging thing to work
Cliff Duvernois: on. Oh, I bet.
Thor Rasmussen: Um, but the vision to create a, a thriving downtown and have the Temple Theater be a part of that, I believe was, was part of his vision.
Cliff Duvernois: Excellent. And we’re gonna discuss that a little bit further. But right now we’re gonna take a quick break to thank our sponsors.
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Welcome back everyone. We’re talking with Thor Rasmussen from the Temple Theater in Saginaw, and we’ve been talking about Dr. Shaheen, his vision of restoring this place. So the question that I have for you is, cuz it, it would’ve been very easy to come in here and say, You know what, We gotta modernize, The stuff in here probably wasn’t working before. Maybe nobody really liked. Let’s, let’s like make this modern, right? Let’s blow this out, let’s make this a cinema complex, or something else like that. But Dr. Shaheen came in and said, No, we will restore it. So first off, thank you Dr. Shaheen, cuz this place is gorgeous.
So thank you for wanting to preserve it. But you know, why, why choose the preservation route versus trying to modernize it?
Thor Rasmussen: president? Yeah. So I, I think that, maintaining some of. Initial opulence that came with the preservation is, is important because it brings, um, brings some of that history into the story of the theater in a different way than if things were plastered over or, or, or, um, made more modern. I think that it allows us to continue to tell our story and, place the theater in, uh, place and time, and so, You know, sometimes it, it can be a challenge because it wasn’t modernized in terms of the layout of, of the space or, or, modern theatergoers, uh, have a different experience with artists selling merch or the size of the lobby, but, All of that cont contributes to the character of the building and the experience that guests have where we can, uh, still provide an, an exceptional experience in a beautiful space and maintain some of those, those historical elements.
To the building. Um, you know, that said, there were some, some changes in the building over, over the years. We, we used to have, when it opened, it had 2200 seats, and now we have 1750. So, you know, there’s some, some changes and I expect there’ll continue to be some changes that. Match the, the modern needs of, theatergoers in our patrons.
But hopefully in, in ways that respect, uh, the character of the building and, uh, respect the, the beauty of the, of the building
Cliff Duvernois: because I know from my study of movie theaters, uh, or theaters just in general, when they first came out, that it was almost like opulence of coming in here. Because even back then, they understood that when people were coming here, like you were talking about, to escape. Their, you know, their regular lives and live in a fantasy for a little bit that, that opulence played into it.
The word that you chose to use was experience, and I love this word and I seem to hear this word a lot lately. So that’s, that’s absolutely wonderful. You do step into that main theater down there and it’s not, A movie theater experience. It is a theater experience. And I, I mean, I spent more time staring at your ceiling than anything because of the, the attention to detail, to the restoration around here is just phenomenal.
I mean, it is beautiful. It literally looked like this place could have been built, you know, like a month ago, you know?
Thor Rasmussen: Yeah. It, it, it’s interesting to think about that, the way that, um, we can. Experience, an event or a show. And the impact that the environment has on that and the memory that that creates, uh, well into the future, that’s something that we’re conscientious about, especially when we have young people or youth in the theater, the way that they, they walk in and, and they look at the chandelier and they just say, Wow.
And it’s interesting cuz uh, when we have field trips through, The kids are just looking up at the ceiling
Cliff Duvernois: Just like me
Thor Rasmussen: just, just like the adults, you know? And so there’s this, this particular, awe that, uh, the theater can, can provide. It’s just wonderful
Cliff Duvernois: Now you’ve been, you have shows here. Mm-hmm. , you’ve had a number of really great artists that have come through here. Talk to me a little bit about. The, you know, the process that you go through when you’re scheduling, you know, these, these names to come through.
Cuz obviously the names can help to attract people to, to attend. So talk to us a little bit about, about that whole process. How does that work? What is, what does your scheduling look like?
Thor Rasmussen: Right. So the booking process, uh, is really, a lot about relationships. And so we have somebody on our staff that is reaching out to agents and agencies, and staying in touch with, uh, those artists that we think would be a good match for the theater. So, You know, as a not-for-profit organization, we have some, uh, cost consciousness about, how we accept, um, or who we can afford, when we’re paying the artists and considering the costs that are associated with that.
So, you know, it’s this balance between, um, Having our wishlist of artists and what can we realistically, afford, uh, in terms of the talent that’s coming through, based on, our ticket sales and, and some other factors. But once that relationship is established and there’s an agreement and a contract, You with the artists then, we set a, an announced date and an on sale date.
And, from there, uh, we worked to promote the show and communicate that this is happening at, at the theater, and ensure that we get those people through the door so they can, can have that experience.
We’re we’ve, we’ve changed our philosophy a little bit about how we’re doing our bookings. Where before we were, laying out a season model where everything was released all at once.
Now we’re, we’re communicating with artists and agents, and promoters on an ongoing basis. So if somebody doesn’t like something that’s announced this week. They might wait till next week and, uh, see what else might be, uh, right for them. So, it’s, it’s this relationship that we’re starting to have more and more with, the artists as they, as they look for a, a, a place to play a show.
You know, there’s this ecosystem where artists want a place to play the show and we want to have artists in our community and we want to prove out that we have a venue that, is a right match for that. And so, you know, sometimes it takes going that extra mile and we work to provide, as much of an experience for the artists and the touring manager and, and their crew as we do for the, the front of house with our patrons that are coming through the door.
So working on, on both ends of that has been really, really important.
Cliff Duvernois: of that.
Because you’ve actually booked quite a lot of really like named guests. Like when I watch the Marquis outside, I’m actually recognizing the names that are popping up there.
Thor Rasmussen: Yeah, that, that’s, uh, the idea is to have some more household names, coming through the, the theater. Uh, so for example, we hosted a comedian, Tom Segura uh, back in August and within the matter of two weeks, he sold out his first show and, uh, we were able to negotiate a second show. Um,
Something like that is really, sort of temple theater, where the Temple Theater is going to have these, um, larger artists so that we can have more people in the theater so more people can experience art.
And um, you know, similarly, come the new year, we will host, uh, Jason Isbell. Uh, so that’s gonna be at the end of January. And then Weird Al and John Crist. So is some of these larger artists will provide us the opportunity to continue to build the theater, audience and attract people into Saginaw and sort of, have people recognize, uh, that Saginaw is on the map, um, rather than just to exit on the way on the way up north.
Cliff Duvernois: You guys are doing something really special. I do wanna take a minute. This is the first time in my interviewing history of all the different businesses that I’ve talked to throughout Michigan Nonprofits.
You actually have a podcast. here, so talk to us about that.
Thor Rasmussen: Sure So, the Temple Arts Podcast, it’s something that I started during the pandemic because nobody knew really what was going on, and we wanted to way to. Present, um, present artists with a, a voice. And, uh, so I started these interviews and since then it’s, it’s evolved a little bit.
So, uh, now there’s guests that are associated with, um, exhibitions at the Saginaw Art Museum, as well as, guests that we host here at, at the Temple Theater. And it, it doesn’t always line up to have all the guests all the time. And sometimes there’s, public relations people that, aren’t able to have the guest come on the show, but want to provide that as a new avenue for communicating with people about the cool things that are, are happening here, here at the theater.
Cliff Duvernois: Obviously, I’m a huge advocate when it comes to podcasting, uh, but also one of the things that I maintain about podcasting is that it’s the ultimate relationship building tool. So to be able to have guests. Be able to come on your podcast and talk about maybe about their upcoming show or new things that they’ve got coming out.
I, I think that helps to go a long ways to, cuz you were talking before about having that ongoing communication, i e relationship with the agents to make sure that, you know, for Tom Segura Right, and you had him here, to be, for him to be able to come back maybe next year, uh, and give another, you know, give another show, I think would be, is beyond beneficial.
Thor Rasmussen: Again, some of that storytelling that we’re trying to do at the theater, uh, you know, stories, they’re not always linear, you know, but, uh, a lot of times they have a beginning and a middle and an end. So for us, we. Uh, we see that, you know, show announce as sort of the beginning of the story, and then we have this middle part where we’re communicating and educating people about the show and the artist.
And then we have that ending period where, people attend the show and they experience the artist for themselves in our space. And then, you know, sort of the, the epilogue of sorts is. Having them tell the story, having, having those guests communicate about their experience at the Temple Theater, uh, to friends and neighbors and family members.
So the next time that something comes around, they’re coming back.
Cliff Duvernois: that yes, and your audience all of a sudden becomes advocates for you.
Thor Rasmussen: that’s
Cliff Duvernois: then they sit there and say, You saw that in Saginaw?
Yes, we did. And it was awesome.
Thor Rasmussen: That’s right. The, I, that’s the best communication tool is, is somebody else telling somebody.
Cliff Duvernois: tool. For our audience, for anybody who’s listening to this particular episode, if they want to connect with you, visit your website, maybe even listen to your podcast, uh, what would be the best ways for them to do that?
Thor Rasmussen: So the best way to find out what’s going on at the temple is to visit our website. That’s temple theater.com. But also follow along with our social media channels. We’re on Facebook and Instagram, uh, TikTok. Even we started at
Cliff Duvernois: Congratulations
Thor Rasmussen: uh, that, that one’s been a fun the last, uh, couple months at the TikTok account.
Um, communicates in the voice of the theater as if the theater is a person, so, It’ll use first, uh, first person, uh, communication. Like I have an organ and I had a whole bunch of people here tonight, you know, so, um, but, uh, all kinds of ways to connect with the theater,
Cliff Duvernois: And for our audience, we’ll have all those links in the show notes. It’s down below. Thor, it’s been awesome talking with you today about this Absolutely beautiful, beautiful building. So thank you for taking time,
Thor Rasmussen: Absolute pleasure.