Since the beginning of the “moving picture” era, Grand Ledge has been home to several venues that have shown movies and provided entertainment. Sackett’s Opera House was one of the first to install movie equipment, but was not exclusively a movie house, featuring plays and athletic events that would come to town.
Among the earliest movie houses was the Vaudette Theatre, located on South Bridge Street near the present location of McDowell’s. To attract crowds an old Edison phonograph stood in front of the theatre playing popular ragtime tunes.
The movies were silent and accompanied by a piano player. The pianist would play music appropriate to the mood of the film, many times not having even seen the movie beforehand!
She would also add enhancements such as striking a sheet of tin for thunder, jingle sleigh bells for snow, or clop a pair of coconut shell halves for galloping horses. Early accompanists in Grand Ledge included Nettie Little and Ann Hodge.
The pictures were not silent for long and the Palace Theatre in Grand Ledge brought the first “Vitaphone” movies to town. The equipment was very different from the high-tech digital projector we use today. It included 18-inch wide playing records which had to be timed just right so the sound matched up to what was happening on screen. If they didn’t start together the stars either mouthed their speeches silently, followed by speaking in the next scene, or the reverse occurred so the audience knew what was being said before the scene.
According to an article in The Grand Ledge Independent on February 24, 1922, J.B. Hunter sold The Palace Theater to Earl Evans and E.K. Stark.
The Grand Theatre was the first to run “Talkies”. This theatre introduced fastened down seats and a sloped floor. The operator, Guy Goodrich, ran a variety of family films including the popular series of the day, The Cohans and Kelly’s. These were always preceded by a two-reel comedy or one of the weekly episodes of a cliff-hanger serial. Admission was 10 cents.
The Grand Theatre was still in operation when the Sun Theatre opened and was owned by the Butterfields. They lived upstairs and the fire department was called one day because their stove was smoking.
The building was soaked and all of the movie equipment was ruined. The Butterfields had already been struggling financially and decided to close the Grand Theatre.
The Sun Theatre was opened in 1931 by Mr. Hulce. An article ran in The Grand Ledge Independent on June 26, 1931 with the headline:
Grand Opening of New Sun Theatre Scheduled Next Thursday Evening
Here is an excerpt from the article:
"The new Sun Theatre is fast nearing completion and not all of the residents of our city realize that the building is outstanding in many ways. It is the first theatre in this part of the state to be built for sound and sound for the theatre. That is, where synchronized sound has been featured. In fact the local building is to be used as a demonstration unit by the company who installed the mechanism which perfects the different tones necessary to the success of talking pictures.""
Seven years after the grand opening, the theatre had new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Phillips, who were already making improvements. According to a short announcement in The Grand Ledge Independent (1/15/1937 p. 10):
“The Sun Theatre this week is undergoing changes in the facilities and size of the ladies room. In the opinion of the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Phillips, this remodel will greatly improve the theatre.”
One year after that, according to another article in The Grand Ledge Independent (3/25/38) more renovations included newly arranged exits, sound proof ceiling, freshly decorated walls and a new cry room.
“…The convenience of a sound proof “cry room” for the benefit of parents with unruly children…”
During the Depression movie theaters across the nation resorted to gimmicks to entice people to still attend the movies and The Sun was no exception. There was DISH NIGHT, where a piece of the current popular “depression glass” was given with each admission.
An even more popular event, “Fred’s Country Store”, took place after a show, where manager, Fred Luethjohann, would conduct a drawing from the stage and matching ticket numbers would win a bag of groceries, small pieces of furniture or credit at a local store.
Sometime in the 1951962 picture of harold and virginia phillips0s the Theatre is sold to Harold and Virginia Phillips. Harold had worked for the theatre since it first opened and was the nephew of the previous owner, Jesse Phillips.
Harold started out as a projectionist at the theatre and learned the business inside and out. He grew the business and became very active in the Grand Ledge community. He served for seven years as the Grand Ledge County Commissioner and volunteered at his church and the United Way. He was also a member of The Grand Ledge Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Ledge Rotary.
The Phillips are pictured above enjoying a movie after they sold the theatre in 1980 to a father and son team, Richard and Randy Ackerman.
Unfortunately, Harold died a year later at the age of 68, after a two year battle with non- functioning kidneys. (Grand Ledge Independent 9/24/81).
Below is an article from 1988 featuring The Sun Theatre as the Business of the Week.
Chuck and Sandy Pantera bought the Sun Theatre in 1989 from Randy Ackerman. Tickets were still only $2 and have never been raised since. Popcorn was 25 cents a bag. One of the first renovations to occur was the removal of 10 seats to make way for handicapped seating.
Movies on deck for that summer included:
• Pet Cemetery
• Major League
• Indian Jones and the last Crusade
Chuck sold the theatre in 1999 to Derek and Jessica Bennett. The Bennetts owned it for nine years, implementing many nice upgrades and keeping the tradition of $2 tickets.
In 2008 The Bennetts sold the theatre back to Chuck Pantera who has remained the owner ever since.
Since 2008 the Theatre has received some major upgrades including a new marquee out front and digital projector equipment.
Both of these investments where significantly supported by the Grand Ledge community. Jeff Daniels performed two events and the community at large was extremely generous with donations. All of these efforts allows the theatre to continue selling tickets for just $4!!