Williamston’s Sun Theatre offers vintage feel, family fun

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It was 1979 and Russ Robitaille was visiting his usual barbershop and started a conversation with the owner of the rock concert venue in disarray just around the corner. The owner revealed to Robitaille he would soon sell the venue. Robitaille, about three weeks before Christmas, decided to buy the venue himself and renovate it into a one-screen movie theatre, now known and loved as the Sun Theatre.

The Sun Theatre. Photo by Claire Heise.

So, what else would you do?” said Lisa Robitaille, daughter-in-law of Russ Robitaille. “You get up from your haircut, you walk next door to the attorney in town, you write up the papers, you sign, you purchase, you go back, you finish your haircut, you have a theatre.” 

Robitaille and his wife, Carol, ambitiously planned to have the theatre up and running by Feb. 1,1980. They did everything that a movie theatre would do in preparation of opening; such as finding a candy vendor, a projectionist for the 35mm film, and reupholstering the old seats, some of which housed illegal products from it’s rock ‘n’ roll days. 

Despite the time crunch and the plight of being first-time movie theatre owners, the Robitailles renovated the theatre and successfully opened its doors on schedule, where it has stayed open and in the family ever since.

A plaque with the commemorative date of the grand re-opening hangs in the theatre next to the popcorn machine, etched with the words, “And they said it couldn’t be done.”

Russ and Carol Robitaille saved the small, one-screen theatre from being forgotten and sold. Now, after being passed down to the next generation within the Robitaille family, the theatre is owned by Dan Robitaille and his wife, Lisa.

Dan and Lisa have owned and loved the theatre for 18 years now.

“It’s gone by very fast,” said Lisa Robitaille. “It has. It’s been a lot of fun.”

One-screen theatres have a special ability of bringing community members together, and the Sun Theatre is no exception. From affordable prices to freshly baked Orville Redenbacher popcorn to a family-like, community feel, the Sun Theatre provides movie-goers with an antique and timeless experience.

Though according to Jim Amos, an entertainment industry writer for Forbes, small town cinemas are facing increasing pressure in order to remain viable in this age of streaming.

Small town, one-screen theatres have dodged technological threats in the past, such as television in the 1950s and VCRs in the 1980s. Today’s in-home streaming access poses a new threat to indie theatres, but the Sun Theatre has adapted and continued to draw viewers in.

“It’s a nice theatre,” said John Garrett, Williamston resident and Sun Theatre-goer of 30 years. “It’s well managed, and it just has a nice feeling.”

The Sun Theatre wasn’t done evolving and renovating after Russ bought it. In 2013, Dan and Lisa decided to amp up the theatre another level in switching from film to digital. But going digital was expensive, so they had to make some accommodations and come up with $60,000.

The Sun Theatre’s movie screen. Photo by Claire Heise.

“We weren’t asking for people’s money,” Lisa Robitaille said. “We made packages. For $25 you get two movie tickets, some popcorn, some drinks. It went all the way up to $250, that will get you the whole theatre to yourself for a party. We managed to meet our goal in 50 days. That just shows you how the community supports and loves the theatre, which was really great.”

For the Sun Theatre, going digital was worth it, especially given the community support. And the Sun Theatre’s community support comes as no surprise given Dan and Lisa’s dedication in giving the best movie-night-out experience possible.

Dan and Lisa are receptive to what Williamston community members want to watch.

“I try and get the best ones,” Lisa said. “With one screen, obviously you depend on that for your income. We’re a family-oriented town so the family movies tend to do the best for us.”

The couple also shows holiday-themed movies to bring the community even further together, these include “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” old Christmas movies after the Williamston light parade and free Halloween showings.

The Sun Theatre’s owners value affordability and accessibility for all community members. 

“It’s inexpensive, it’s close to home,” said Joni Garrett, another Williamston resident and regular Sun Theatre attendee. “It’s a nice atmosphere.”

For parents, going to the movies with their child could be an unpleasant experience for all parties involved, but the Sun Theatre has a feature that makes for a safe, accommodating space that can benefit the whole family. 

The “cry room” in Williamston’s Sun Theatre. Photo by Claire Heise.

To help make the atmosphere pleasant for all viewers, the theatre added a “cry room” equipped with soundproof walls, six movie theatre seats that move like rocking chairs and a large glass window that allows those inside to still see and enjoy the movie. No need to get up and miss the show, this cry room is accessible from inside the theatre, it even has its own sign to guide parents. 

Dan and Lisa have made the theatre a home away from home for those familiar with it and a home waiting to be discovered for first-time Sun Theatre goers.

“I just like that it’s a family when you’re working here,” said Andrea Bertolino, a Williamston resident who has worked at the Sun Theatre for three years. “You come here and you don’t dread coming to work, you know? You’re excited, you’ve got your regulars that look forward to seeing you working and it’s like coming back to another house.”

“You get to know everybody, it’s kind of like family,” said Lisa. “That’s really why i love it so much, everyone is just so nice when they come in here.”

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