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Wednesday, December 12,2012

Keeping the Sun from setting

Williamston movie theater turns to crowdsourcing to leap into 21st century

by Rich Tupica
There’s a flickering cinematic nostalgia that hits moviegoers when they take in a movie at the Sun Theatre in downtown Williamston. It’s a virtual 1950s time warp of a structure, complete with a metal-panel facade and a wide, V-shaped marquee that extends above the entrances.

Unlike most chain multiplexes, the family-owned, one-screen theater still shows movies the old-fashioned way: with a large projector and a colossal 35 mm reel of film — a bulky, archaic method in today’s tiny-tech obsessed world. 

But those days are numbered — Hollywood is going 100 percent digital. By the end of 2013, a server and a download will replace the soon-to-be extinct reel. Sun owners Dan and Lisa Robitaille, who have been married for 16 years, say they must upgrade to digital to survive.

The Robitailles, who work day jobs while also managing the Sun, launched an online fundraiser at savethesun.net with a goal of $80,000. The cost would cover the costs for the high-tech equipment needed for the projection and sound upgrade. As of Tuesday, the Sun had raised $19, 000.

“Change sucks,” said Dan Robitaille, standing in the projection room next to a reel of “Argo.” “The movie’s called a flick for a reason — you’ve got a light shining through frames and it creates this flickering effect. You won’t have that anymore with digital.”

Hollywood is rushing to ditch film not only to improve the picture quality, but likely to save some dough, according to Lisa Robitaille. 

“It costs (distributors) about $1,500 to print one film, and then you have to pay for it to be shipped here,” she said. “You also have to put it together, tear it down and ship (the reel) back. Now they can make it digital for $150 and just send us a download.”

For hundreds of locals, it’s a night out on the town for a $4 ticket. For example, there sitting in their usual seats in the back row of the “Argo” screening is the Fillwock family. Louie Fillwock, 80, of Williamston, has been catching movies at the historic building since his high school days. His son Ken Fillwock, sitting beside him, chimes in: “Well, it’s our hometown. We’d like to see the theater keep going. It’s nice not having to drive into Lansing.” 

The Sun has a long history in Williamston. It was built in 1947 and operated for decades by the late Dick Montgomery. Later, it was sold to Gary Wright, who sold it in turn in 1979 on a whim to Russ Robitaille, Dan’s father.

“It was a joke when my dad bought it,” he said. “He was in a barber shop when the previous owner came walking in. My dad asked, ‘What are you going to do with that theater of yours?’ And he answered, ‘Why, big shooter, you want to buy it?’ The two walked next door to a lawyer’s office, sealed the deal, then returned and finished their haircuts. My dad came home that evening and asked my mother, ‘Hey, you know that movie theater in town?’ She said, ‘That eyesore? Someone ought to burn it down.’ And he said, ‘I hope not, because we own it.’”

Soon the family was working to whip the dilapidated building into shape, including Dan, who was just a teen at the time. 

“My entire family would get up at 4 a.m. and start gutting it,” he said. “We reupholstered all the seats and painted everything. We fixed up all the seats that were torn up because (the previous owner) had rock concerts here. There was some bizarre stuff we found as far as paraphernalia in the seats. But it was all just our family. We couldn’t afford other employees.” 

The reins were passed from father to son in 2000, and today the Sun employs around eight workers and is open seven days a week. So far, Dan Robitaille says the support has been tremendous from locals and former residents. 

“We just got a Christmas card from an 89-year-old lady who remembers the Sun as a high school hangout,” he said. “She made a donation and wrote us a two-page letter talking about who she was and how many generations of her family had passed through here. 

“There’s a lot of history in this theater.”

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