Tim Allen’s impressive body of work as a good-guy Hollywood actor and comedian includes two blockbuster situation comedies on television, a series of Christmas-movie hits, stellar voicing work alongside Tom Hanks, and even a turn or two as the male lead in romantic comedies.
Allen also was able to persuade a TV network to revive a dead show. Then there’s the stage-comedy career that has followed him since his first big break at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in downtown Royal Oak in 1979.
But Allen’s most satisfying professional achievement may well be his mellifluous voiceover work for the long-running “Pure Michigan” TV and radio advertisements. In sonorous tones that mix the appeal of awe with the persuasive power of authenticity, Allen’s poetic descriptions of the natural and manmade wonders of Michigan register on the dopamine scale somewhere between football Saturdays at the Big House and lazy Sundays boating on Lake St. Clair.
Set against the backdrop of a hypnotic score, with one scene after another illustrating the experiential richness of Michigan, Allen successfully beckons visitors to his home state from across the Midwest, from the far reaches of America, and even from abroad. His work makes you want to sit back and listen — and then go and see what he’s talking about.
If it sounds hyperbolic to compare Allen’s voice work on the Pure Michigan ads with his best “Tool Man” turns on “Home Improvement,” with how he performed in a fat suit in “The Santa Clause,” or even with how he has evolved the character of Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut toy, in the upcoming release of “Toy Story 4” — well, he’ll tell you himself. He has said, more than once, that it’s the work of which he’s most proud.
“It’s brought a great quality out of my voice that I never knew I had, and I always wanted to be a voiceover talent,” Allen says. And in an interview with Travel Michigan, he adds: “It’s made a huge impact on my professional life. It’s even changed how I do Buzz Lightyear a bit. And it’s made a difference in my personal life,” he joked. “Now my family listens to me if I say things in voiceover.”
Officials from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which oversees the Pure Michigan campaign, and tourism operators alike love to hear how much Allen enjoys singing the praises of the places and people of the state, especially now. After a 12-year run piling up documented success in achieving its mission, industry kudos for the creative work, and state-budget increases that have continually validated its performance, the Pure Michigan campaign is facing a major funding cut under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s initial budget.
The potential loss of some funding comes amid the backdrop of a new series of Pure Michigan ads set to be released this summer that highlight sun-dappled, water-splashed places across the state and put the spotlight on Traverse City, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and the Great Lakes Bay Region. Plus, a captivating new commercial, titled “Heart Rate,” showcases beloved locations in the Upper Peninsula including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls, and the Mackinac Bridge.
In her first budget as governor, Whitmer wants to cut the annual Pure Michigan allowance to $31 million for 2019, down from the $35-millon level of each of the previous two years. She says she intends to redirect some funding to priorities such as fixing the roads and education.
Interestingly, the governor is making strange bedfellows with conservative critics of Pure Michigan, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Midland-based nonprofit think tank long has held that the campaign budget could be better used on infrastructure improvements and tax cuts, and it’s challenged the lack of third-party validation of Travel Michigan’s ROI statistics.
The fiscal threat to Pure Michigan may be more serious than anything that came at it during the administrations of Democrat Jennifer Granholm and Republican Rick Snyder. “I always had the philosophy of never trying to mess with it, even in my wildest imagination,” says Steve Arwood, CEO of the MEDC for four years under Snyder, “because it works.”
Key figures such as Jeff Mason, current CEO of the MEDC, and Dan Musser III, president of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, wouldn’t criticize Whitmer’s plans. But they and others also underscored the fear that Pure Michigan could be trimmed at a time when it’s more valuable than ever as a tool for attracting businesses as well as tourists.
“Quality of life is in the top 10 things that matter for companies,” says Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy in Jackson. “Nobody can underestimate the fact that human beings are making those decisions about where to locate their businesses, because they have to attract people and live there, too.”
Consider, more than 2.1 million trips were made here from outside the state last year as a result of exposure to the Pure Michigan campaign, according to MEDC officials, and those visitors spent $2.5 billion in communities and local businesses statewide. That spending provided a return on investment of $9.28 per $1 in 2018, up from $8.99 in 2017. The state spent $16.5 million on the out-of-state Pure Michigan advertising campaign in 2018, but visitor spending motivated by the campaign supported $153 million in state tax revenue.
“It works,” says Arwood, who today heads the economic-development consulting division of Miller Canfield, a large law firm in downtown Detroit. “It’s embedded in everyone who lives in Michigan. It’s a brand that has become more than a slogan.”
Major tourism operators testify to the effectiveness of Pure Michigan in drawing local residents as well as visitors from beyond the state. “The most important thing the campaign has done is powerfully transform the image of Michigan from that of a failing Rust Belt state,” says Chris MacInnes, president of Crystal Enterprises, which operates Crystal Mountain golf, ski, and spa resort in Thompsonville. “It’s known for talking about our natural beauty, but the campaign also has had the courage to talk about our vibrant urban centers. And it’s for all seasons — it’s not just a summer or even a winter campaign.”
For Musser, allegiance to Pure Michigan goes back to the dark days of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. “Every business was looking at how to expand our markets and, frankly, how to survive,” says Musser, president of the Grand Hotel and scion of the family that founded and owns the iconic destination.
Pure Michigan “gave Mackinac Island and the state credibility in national markets where we didn’t have much before,” he adds. “Even while we decided to cut back our own advertising nationally, those (Pure Michigan) ads were giving us a level of credibility that we could never afford — or, quite frankly, produce.” Out-of-state visitors helped turn around the fortunes of the Grand Hotel over the subsequent decade, he says.
Anyone who has visited the Leelanau Peninsula in July in the eight years since viewers of “Good Morning America” named the Sleeping Bear sand dunes the “Most Beautiful Place in America,” or who’s had to loiter at the tee, waiting for play to move on the breathtaking par-5 hole No. 5 on the Mountain Ridge golf course at Crystal Mountain, understands the power of emotional appeals in getting people to flock from wherever they live to a special vacation place that’s been “discovered.”
Getting this state-tourism promotion thing down right is no Blake Griffin slam-dunk. For the establishment of every iconic “I NY” and “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan over the years, other states have gotten poor results. Pennsylvania, for example, slashed its state tourism allocation from $33 million a decade ago to less than $4 million in 2016.
The biggest part of succeeding, of course, depends on what the state has to work with. And that’s where Michigan excels, with 3,228 miles of coastline; shores on four of the five Great Lakes, plus Lake St. Clair; 11,000 inland lakes; four-season recreation; the topographically breathtaking Upper Peninsula; great vistas of agricultural crops, orchards, and vineyards; vast northern woods; and hugely different urban settings, milieus, and vibes, ranging from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Marshall to Lexington, and Monroe to Traverse City.
To enhance the marketing impact, tourism officials across the country also like to recruit celebrities, just as many brand advertisers do. But it doesn’t always work out. In the sunshine state, for instance, the CEO of Visit Florida was forced to resign three years ago after Miami rapper Pitbull revealed that the agency had paid him $1 million to market tourism in the state. The revelations of previously secret details came in the midst of a big legislative debate about funding Visit Florida.
Allen and Pure Michigan form a rare successful combination in this sector of the marketing genre. “It’s a co-branding thing, to a great degree,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan — part of the MEDC — and a major architect of the Pure Michigan platform and its relationship with the actor. “The efficacy of our brand is lifted because we’re associated with someone who’s thought of as positively as Tim Allen is. A lot of people eventually find out it’s Tim’s voice, and you get a little bit of a ‘wow.’ ”
Allen’s relationship with Michigan is deep, connecting widely varying bits of his life and personality including his childhood and his family, his vacation habits, his wardrobe on his TV shows, and even an ambitious plan to build a downtown-Detroit amusement park with General Motors Co. and Walt Disney Co.
Truth be told, there have been some downs as well as ups. Allen was born Timothy Allen Dick in Colorado and lost his natural father to a drunk-driving accident when he was 11 years old. Remarried, his mother moved her six children to Birmingham in the mid-1960s. It was there, Allen recalls, that he began exhibiting a fondness for cars, presumably inherited from his father and stoked by the auto-centric culture of Detroit.
“Everyone’s parents were engineers,” says Allen, in a reference familiar to every Detroiter. “I was living near Woodward Avenue and would see prototypes of cars, and of course Royal Oak and Ferndale were where the action was. It was all about racing GTOs and Roadrunners. For a car guy, it was nirvana.” Allen also has vivid memories of his family’s first trips “up north” to ski. “I got to really enjoy Leelanau and Traverse City,” he says.
Allen graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in 1976 with a communications degree in radio and TV production. Smart and funny, to boot, he got involved in standup comedy early on, but his life took a dark turn with an arrest in Kalamazoo and a 28-month jail term for dealing cocaine. After that, Allen moved to Los Angeles, turned to comedy again, and refined a regular-guy persona that he parlayed on stage and in late-night talk shows.
From there, Allen developed the role of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor for the “Home Improvement” show on ABC. Often featuring Allen in Michigan-related wear such as Lions sweatshirts, the family sitcom set in suburban Detroit was a hit from 1991 through 1999. The network even shot one episode of the show in northern Michigan.
While Allen’s career moved on from Michigan, he — and his heart — haven’t. His mother and several siblings still live here, and he maintains a home in the northwestern suburbs of Detroit — one that famous fixer-upper Bob Vila helped Allen rebuild on the air. And Allen long has enjoyed a summer house in the Traverse City area.
Allen can wax as eloquent about the Great Lakes State in interviews as he does in the Pure Michigan ads, such as when he talks about his beloved summers up north. “It’s like ripe pears; it’s really good for a short period of time,” he says. “If you get there between the Fourth of July and late August, in a stretch where it’s 90 degrees, and you’re standing on a white sand beach and looking at a sunny day — you’d be hard pressed to tell me where you were if you didn’t know. Sometimes, it’s remarkably different and mystical.”
At one time, Allen wanted to be a big-time investor in Michigan by spearheading the development of an amusement park in downtown Detroit. In the 1990s, when the Motor City was still very much stuck in the economic dumps, Allen had an idea for creating an authentically located attraction in Detroit that would make the auto industry fun in ways not attempted by Flint’s Auto World park, which closed for good in 1994 after a short and unsuccessful run.
“I never understood why there wasn’t an immersive automotive experience in America’s capital of cars, just because Auto World didn’t work out well,” he says. “So I went to (CEO Michael) Eisner at (ABC parent) Disney when I was with ‘Home Improvement’ — that’s one of the many things I could get away with at that time. And I said, ‘Why not combine the technology and engineering that you’re capable of at Disney World with the kind of test tracks that GM could come up with?’ ”
His vision, Allen recalls, was to get each of the Detroit Three automakers to sponsor areas of the park, and for other brands including Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Ferrari to create some excitement with their own vehicles. “There would be historical stuff; GM to this day has so many things that they aren’t able to show you,” Allen says. “There would be rides, and the People Mover would go through this beautiful thing. It would have to be immersive, too; there would be road racing.”
A pesky Allen even approached Disney “imagineers” on his own, pitching his ideas for the place and spending some of the company’s money to develop his idea. He finally managed to get Disney and GM to talk about it, “but these two companies ultimately just weren’t going to be able to work together on this,” he says.
Turns out that Allen’s ultimate investment in the Michigan economy may have been even more valuable. When the MEDC came up with the idea for Pure Michigan during the last economic boom, working with the McCann ad agency that has offices in Birmingham, the names of many famous Michiganders were floated as possibilities for voiceovers: Aretha Franklin, Tom Selleck, even Alice Cooper. “But when Tim Allen’s name came up, it just rang a bell,” Lorenz recalls. “And when McCann talked to his people, he said, ‘I don’t do many ads, but I’d love to do that.’ ”
One reason Allen raised his hand is that he’d really gotten to enjoy voiceover work via the “Toy Story” movie franchise. When he was young, he knew about Ron Rose Productions — a famous production house formerly in Southfield and now in Royal Oak, operating as Ron Rose Milagro — and often thought he’d like to become a professional voiceover artist. Pure Michigan, in part, was his chance to complete the circle in his old backyard.
Allen soon realized that even performing behind a mic as Buzz Lightyear beside Hanks’ Woody, the sheriff character, and doing multiyear voicing campaigns for General Motors Co. and Campbell Soup Co. hadn’t prepared him for voicing Pure Michigan ads. That became apparent to the McCann team when Allen began with a sort of Buzz Lightyear take on the wonders of Michigan.
“Voiceover talent has a real specific skill set, and I had just never gotten there,” he told Travel Michigan. But director Mark Canavan began teasing his true capabilities out of Allen, helping produce the now-famous voice of the ad campaign. “It wasn’t until I was challenged to do it in a way that was outside my comfort zone that I found out I have that skill set,” Allen says.
The actor likes to give a lot of credit for Pure Michigan’s success to the video production crew and to the lilting score, which McCann borrowed from music by Rachel Portman for the 1999 Miramax film “The Cider House Rules.”
But, like ripe pears in Michigan in July, it’s Allen’s voice that has defined this moment in the Great Lakes state’s history.
Pushing The Button
Tim Allen’s current long-running sitcom, “Last Man Standing,” carries strong echoes of “Home Improvement.” His character is married and has three daughters, and the show is set in a city that’s been a hometown for him, though this time it’s Denver instead of Detroit. And his weekly “vlogs” from the show’s fictional Outdoor Man store are reminiscent of Allen’s “Tool Man” riffs on his first show.
Where “Last Man Standing” departs from Allen’s previous sitcom is that it often trumpets political views — in this case, those of Allen’s Reagan-conservative character. In the first few seasons, his character, “Mike Baxter,” frequently took digs at President Obama, then at candidate Hillary Clinton.
Yet “Last Man Standing,” in reprise, could be even more politically charged, given that ABC axed the show two years ago despite its solid ratings, and it was picked up by Fox. “Everyone had moved on, but I took part of the set and stored it at my own production office,” Allen says. “I didn’t feel that it was done. When (then-Fox TV Chairman) Dana Walden called me up and said, ‘What do you think about bringing it to Fox?’ And I said, ‘I’m in, if you’re in.’ ”
Allen insists Baxter’s main complaints are about “taxes and government,” and says he “takes any chance he can to make fun of where he lives, which is a left-leaning state.”
But he doesn’t deny being a provocateur. “I like it that we can make statements and poke fun at very brittle liberals,” Allen says. “In Hollywood, there’s nothing more annoying than a well-educated character who’s a conservative. They don’t like it. But the more they don’t like it, the more you push that button.”
Actor: Tim Allen
Born: Timothy Allen Dick, June 13, 1953
Childhood: Born in Denver, Allen’s family moved to Birmingham when he was 13 years old. He graduated from Ernest W. Seaholm High School and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where in 1976 he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications specializing in radio and television production.
Early Career: Started doing standup comedy in 1975. On a dare in 1979, he appeared at a comedy night at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in downtown Royal Oak. From there, he moved to Los Angeles and did standup comedy before landing the role of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor on “Home Improvement” in 1991.
Career: Actor, voice actor, film and television director, film and television producer, and screenwriter.
Credits: Played starring roles in “Jungle 2 Jungle,” “For Richer or Poorer,” “Galaxy Quest,” “Big Trouble,” “The Santa Clause,” “The Santa Clause 2,” “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” “The Shaggy Dog,” “Zoom,” “Wild Hogs,” “Crazy on the Outside,” “El Camino Christmas,” and more. He provided the voice of Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Toy Story 4” (the latter film has a June 21 release date).
Net Worth: $80M (CelebrityNetWorth.com)
Salary: $235,000 per episode as Mike Baxter on “Last Man Standing.”