By Stephen Brooks
Williamston Post staff writer
The exterior aesthetics alone are straight from generations past. At nightly showings, when the original marquee at the Sun Theatre, 150 W. Grand River Ave., lights up, the single-screen movie theater feels like a blast from the past.
The theater is a beacon of nostalgia and has been a staple in the downtown Williamston business scene since it opened in 1947.
Thanks to the efforts by theater owners Dan and Lisa Robitaille, and the generosity of the surrounding communities, the theater won’t have to sacrifice it’s trademark low-cost pricing — a ticket is $4 and a bag of popcorn is as cheap as a quarter — and nostalgic feel as it transitions to a new era of filmmaking.
The Robitailles started the “Save the Sun” campaign in November as the theater faced an uncertain future: the continued preference from Hollywood for films to be distributed only in digital formats versus the traditional 35-millimeter film. The goal was $80,000 — a ballpark estimate for the cost of outfitting the facility with a new digital projector and sound system, among other upgrades.
“It’s a cheap place, and we hope to keep it that way,” Dan Robitaille said. “That’s what the whole campaign was, even though it came across ‘Save the Sun’ like they’re closing the doors, we just wanted to keep it cheap. We didn’t want to raise prices.”
Donations continue to roll in every day from across the country despite the campaign officially ending in January, and the family has raised roughly $60,000 to this point. Through ticket sales alone, Dan Robitaille said, it would take roughly 20 years for the theater to raise enough money for the upgrades.
Lisa Robitaille said she expects the theater to be fully digital by the beginning of the summer due to the fundraising.
“I was confident that the community would help out because it’s very family-oriented. Even the surrounding areas, not just Williamston,” Lisa Robitaille said.
“When you’ve got a 70-year-old building like this, a 70-year-old theater, there’s over three generations that have grown up through this place,” Dan Robitaille interjected.
“And we do have a three-generation family coming here once a week.”
Donors are offered incentives, so for a $25 donation, for example, the donor would receive two free tickets, two medium drinks and a medium popcorn. The tiered scale tops off with the $800 “director level” which is aimed at businesses and includes a 300-person private viewing party.
“When there’s something going on in Williamston, I think everybody rallies to it,” said Marcia Bauer, a Williamston resident.
“The people in this community support Williamston.”
The theater has been owned and operated by Dan’s family since 1980 and shows one movie every night at 7 p.m. for a week, and then a new movie plays starting on Friday. There are matinees on the weekends and sometimes on holidays or days when kids have school off, Lisa Robitaille said.
It’s important to the Robitailles to keep the theater family-friendly and accessible for movie-goers on any budget. That was evident in the way Lisa aggressively tracked down a customer that forgot their change at the ticket booth. It was one dollar. Or how the owners look forward to seeing their regulars on certain nights of the week.
“You can send your kids up here and feel safe,” said Williamston resident Kim Hooson, who visits the theater weekly with her husband, Ron.
“They can walk up here, they can ride their bike — it’s a family thing, you know?”
By the time the summer blockbusters roll around, the Sun Theatre should be completely upgraded, and still maintaining its novelty and low prices.
For those still looking to help the cause, donations can be made online at savethesun.net.
“I know I could go to (a large-scale commercial theater) and I could have seen ‘Lincoln’ weeks ago, but we waited for it to come here so we could have our night out. … Everybody loves our little theater,” Hoosen said.