The History of the Sun Theatre

 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.edison phongraph

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.

picturs of an american fotoplayer
This is an example of an American fotoplayer introduced in 1912.

 The Vitaphone brings sound to the movies!

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.

vitaphoneVitaphone Engineer Georges Groves examining a sound-on-disc recording (1927). Picture courtesy of www.theexaminer.com

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.

Talkies

the Grand Theatre 1920sThe 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 Arrives in Grand Ledge

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.

Renovations and Improvements Continue

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.”

1938 article on renovationsOne 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.

small ad about renovations 1938

“…The convenience of a sound proof “cry room” for the benefit of parents with unruly children…”

 Movies were popular during the Depressionimages of depression ere glassware

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.

New Year’s Eve Parties

ads for NYE parties 1937

an ad from 1942

According to an advertisement in The Grand Ledge Independent (6/2/1949) the Sun Theatre’s telephone number was 152.

  New Owners in the 1950s

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.

picture of the Phillips outside the Sun Theare in 1980

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.

Family Fun Thrives a the Sun Theare Aricle from 1988

The FIRST Time Chuck Pantera Buys the Theatre

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
•    Batman

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.

article from 1999 on the new owners, the Bennetts

The SECOND time Chuck Pantera buys the Theatre

In 2008 The Bennetts sold the theatre back to Chuck Pantera who has remained the owner ever since.

article from 9/6/08 Former Owner takes control of the Sun theatre

anniversary picture of Chuck at theater after re-owning the theatre for one year

Since 2008 the Theatre has received some major upgrades including a new marquee out front and digital projector equipment.

picture of theenw marquee article from 2011

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 $2!!

article about Jeff Daniels fundraising concert

New Website

The Theatre updated to a new website in 2015 complete with a modern design and functionality. A page was added to feature all the local businesses who advertise with the Theatre and links to their websites (when available).

“I want to do all I can to support this community who supports the theatre,” says Chuck.

The theatre is also blogging and including more community events and news on its Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Community Events

Today, The Theatre is more than just a place to see a movie and eat great popcorn!

Currently, the theatre:
•    Provides a great venue for fun, affordable, family-oriented entertainment
•    hosts birthday parties, corporate events, and fundraisers
•    Features monthly Ladies’ Night Out
•    Collects donations for the Food Bank
•    Promotes local businesses on screen and on their website

What will be in store for the theatre next? Stay connected to find out…

The Sun Theatre would like to thank The Grand Ledge Public Library for access to their wonderful records. Some of the historical information was obtained from two papers written by Grand Ledge High School students, one author was Craig Dukes (1976) and the other was an unknown author (1976, teacher Kathy Jackson).