Mackinac’s Grand Hotel Subject of WTVS Documentary

Previewing Detroit Public Television’s new documentary about the iconic hotel, debuting in March

When residents and outsiders think about Michigan, several things come to mind. But when thoughts turn to summer vacations and romantic destinations, the choices narrow. Near the top of that list is Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

The iconic resort has won acclaim since opening in 1887. Its classic architecture and storied past have led it to be selected as a State Historical Building in 1957; it was added as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1989.

And of course, there are movies, from 1947’s This Time For Keeps starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams to the beloved Somewhere In Time, a 1980 release filmed at the Grand that starred Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer.

To celebrate Grand Hotel’s 130th anniversary in 2017, the camera gets turned inward for a WTVS Detroit Public Television-produced documentary.

Inside Grand Hotel will debut March 1 at the Detroit Athletic Club and The Gem in Detroit. Some 400 donors, patrons, and guests are expected to attend. The one-hour film — narrated by longtime Grand Hotel fan WJR-AM’s Paul W. Smith — gets its broadcast premier the following evening.

WTVS tapped Emmy award-winning filmmaker Oliver Thornton to produce the homage to Grand Hotel. His credits include Feel Grand with Jane Seymour (a nationally distributed American Public Television talk show) and the Detroit Remembers When series. 

As the name Inside Grand Hotel might suggest, the film is more than a historic retelling. It adopts a “behind-the-scenes” approach.

“A lot of guests want to see areas they normally don’t get to see,” Thornton says, such as the kitchen, horse stables, and even where the luggage goes.

The luggage aspect piqued Thornton’s interest. “You just drop your bags at the ferry on the mainland,” he says. “And then magically two hours later it just shows up outside your door.”

He set out to explore Grand Hotel’s well-oiled machine last summer, visiting the island for a half-dozen, several-day shoots looking for interesting perspectives guests might not realize.

Another fun fact: “They send food up every day from Eastern Market,” Thornton says. “Trucks leave at like 2 or 4 in the morning.”

Thornton also found long-term employees who started off “not intending to work there for the rest of their lives,” he says. Those who “get it” buy into the idea of the hotel as a lifestyle and tend to stay.

Examples include a maître d from Jamaica who’s worked at Grand Hotel for 40 years, a longtime stable master, and a chef.

“There are a lot of great characters up there,” Thornton says, including staff historian/concierge Bob Tagatz, who was integral to the film crew’s success. “You just wind him up and let him go.”

Thornton found that attitude permeating the Grand Hotel staff. “They have a habit of finding people who are really passionate about a certain thing, [then] putting those people in place to kind of own that,” he says. “When people are passionate, they’re going to tell great stories.”

That “do what you love” attitude goes back to a family member who started as a desk clerk in 1919. But Thornton leaves the telling of that tale to Dan Musser III, the current president and third generation of Grand Hotel ownership.

In March 1933 during the Great Depression, W. Stewart Woodfill — who was first hired on as a desk clerk in 1919 — ended up being the sole bidder in an auction to take the hotel out of receivership.

Woodfill’s nephew was Musser’s father, R.D. Musser Jr., who joined the hotel staff in 1951, working his way up to president in 1960. He and his wife bought the place in 1979.

Musser (the III) started raking bunkers at the golf course at around age 12, making a whopping 75 cents an hour. But the big payoff: “I got to pick a full-sized candy bar at the end of the day,” he says.

Musser worked nearly every aspect of the business, from kitchen assistant, bellman, and bartender to front desk clerk — pretty much everything “except for the stables,” he says. “This has been my life and maybe I take it for granted. Yes, we own this facility, but I feel like we’re more caretakers than anything. It’s the state’s gem and we’re fortunate enough to be there at the helm.”

Knowing Grand Hotel’s operations from the ground up gives Musser an appreciation for what the employees do. “They come from literally all over the world” he says, “bringing a diversity of skills and experiences. And the same is true of our guests: people from all walks of life.”

Housing those workers is, in fact, a huge undertaking in itself, considering there are some 600 employees each year, compared to the current 393 guest rooms.

Aside from interviewing staff for the film, Thornton included a few “celebrity” moments. He and his crew jumped on a plane to Malibu to interview Jane Seymour — about the filming of Somewhere in Time, of course.

Thornton also interviewed Carleton Varney, the famed interior designer who “put his stamp” on Grand Hotel, working with the Musser family on restorations and decorations since 1976. Varney, president of Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc. in New York, has worked on resorts around the world, including Ashford Castle in Ireland, The Waldorf Towers and Plaza Hotel in New York, and the Greenbrier in West Virginia.

At press time, Thornton’s team was whittling down all their footage into a one-hour documentary that captures the jewel that is Grand Hotel.

That jewel ideology is a thread throughout the film, he says, explaining that if you’re walking down the beach and find a jewel, chances are you’ll come back to that beach. The Grand Hotel philosophy is to try to create those jewels so people come back.

Musser sure hopes so. “Grand Hotel is an iconic and lovely structure that inspires people,” he says. “Creating memories [is] the one thing that guests take away …  and that becomes part of their lives.”

Another lasting memory is an end-of-the-season tradition. Musser walks through the hotel, ringing a bell to mark its official closing.

The tradition goes back to when Musser’s father would ring a bell after the last guest left. Today, guests can witness the experience, as Musser gathers staff in the parlor to thank them for the season.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Musser says. “It’s the end of a great season, but we’re eager to kick our feet up, too.”

They don’t kick back too far. Musser does a final walk-through of all the guest rooms. What emerges is a laundry list of offseason improvements to tackle.

On deck: New suites on the fourth floor, freshening up a number of rooms, plus the replacement and enclosure of around half of the iconic porch.

After all, when you’re the caretaker of history, you can’t rest on your laurels.