Conrad H. Foster, 1875-1940

One of the things that makes the Bijou by the Bay theater project so special is not only its amazing waterfront location, or even the impact it will have on the community, but also the opportunity to pay fitting tribute to Traverse City’s first great theater manager, Conrad Foster.

Conrad Foster was a remarkable man. Manager of the State Theatre when it was originally known as 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, it’s 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 movie theater, but also 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.

Among his many accomplishments, Foster led the effort to clean up the waterfront and establish Clinch Park after the closure of the Hannah Lay lumber mill. The City of Traverse City is now continuing that tradition of making Clinch Park a beautiful place for the public to enjoy, and the Traverse City Film Festival is honored to be a part of it.

In appreciation of all that Foster had done for the city, and in special recognition of his work toward improving Clinch Park, the local civil works administration had his named carved over the doorway of the museum without his knowledge. There Foster’s name stands to this very day, and we are sure he will be proud of the Bijou by the Bay, as will our entire community.

Research and writing by Sally Michel.

Special thanks to the State Theatre History Committee: Sally Michel, coordinator and researcher; researchers Julie Fernandez, Karen Manthei, Helen Andrzejewski, Mary Fitch, Nancy Yarborough, Joan Murray, Cindi Despelder and Pat Coats.

Thanks to the History Center of Traverse City for their help in our research of Con Foster.