TRAVERSE CITY — There’s no “Polar Express” pajama party or New Year’s Eve shindig. There’s not even popcorn or soda.
But that hasn’t stopped the scaled-back return of holiday programming at the State Theatre and Bijou by the Bay.
“It’s a smaller operation. Everything’s different right now,” said Ann Post, house manager for the theaters, pointing out the absence of concessions and special events this holiday season and the presence of stringent COVID-19 safety precautions.
The theaters reopened the weekend before Thanksgiving after a 20-month pandemic hiatus and extensive repairs and upgrades.
“The response has been really incredible and people are glad we’re back,” said programmer and filmmaker Michael Moore, noting current-movie sellouts at the Bijou and higher-grossing “Christmas classics” at the State, both with reduced seating.
While traditionally audiences look to holiday movies for entertainment that captures the season’s concepts of family, peace on earth, and joy to the world, this year’s holiday programming is about more than diversion, Moore said.
“We’re all looking for some form of comfort right now and most movies surrounding the holidays this year have in them, at some point, hope and love and warmth — even those that are sad,” he said.
Frequent film-goer Jay Wood said he and wife Betsy Moore (no direction to the filmmaker) were disappointed by the wait “but it’s a pleasure you withhold for a greater good in trying to keep people safe, especially ourselves. “Now they’re making up for lost time.
The Traverse City couple attended most of the movies the theaters have shown since reopening, including $5 screenings of the holiday classics “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.”
Moore said 27 percent of tickets were bought online before the pandemic, compared to 95 percent now.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas repeat again today at noon and 3 p.m. before Christmas Day openings of the sci-fi classic “Dune” and the George Clooney-directed coming-of-age story “The Tender Bar.”
Moore calls the Golden Globe-nominated “Dune” — a film adaptation about a young man’s journey to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people — the kind of movie meant to be seen at the State.
“It’s based on a novel and it’s done right,” he said, noting acting by Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin and Zendaya, and direction by French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. “We would have brought it to the Film Festival this year.”
Wood and his wife plan to see that movie, too, though probably not on Christmas Day. Wood said the theaters’ COVID-19 safety precautions, like mandatory masking, wide seat margins, new air filter systems, and vaccination card, ID and temperature checks, help keep them coming back.
“Going into a place of business that is less crowded makes us feel safer,” he said. “We are glad and grateful that there’s been a way to get movies back and we’re glad that the State and Bijou and the (Traverse City) Film Festival, which is behind them, are taking precautions.”
But those aren’t the only area theaters showing holiday movies.
The Bay Theatre in Suttons Bay began special programming Thanksgiving weekend and opens “Sing 2” on Christmas Day.
The animation sequel brings back koala Buster Moon and his all-star cast of animal performers as they prepare to stage their biggest extravaganza.
While the Bay won’t open its first film of the new year — “Protect and Serve” — until Jan. 6, 2022, the State and Bijou will celebrate New Year’s Eve early with Dec. 30 openings of Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Joel Cohen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
On New Year’s Eve itself, movie-goers can catch the last evening screenings and be out in time to watch the CherryT Ball Drop on Front and Park Streets if the event goes ahead as planned, Moore said.
Both films will run two weeks, then the theaters will open only on weekends through the rest of the winter, he added.
Meanwhile the new year will bring another change: the requirement of the COVID booster shot for all attendees.
“Right now people are coming in with their cards out and their foreheads down so they can get their temperature checked,” Post said. “They’re so grateful for all the precautions.”