By Bill Petzold
CARO — The Strand Theatre made its digital debut August 7, but a little over a week later it was the golden age of Caro’s silver screen that dominated conversation.
A group of former Strand employees gathered at the downtown landmark August 15 to swap stories in advance of the Caro Roadhouse Museum’s special exhibit Saturday and Sunday with artifacts and memorabilia from the Strand’s past. The display will be free to the public and open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The Roadhouse Museum, 235 South Almer St., is located near the Tuscola County Fairgrounds.
“We are having an event at the museum showing many items from the nostalgic past of the Strand Theatre,” said the Roadhouse Museum’s Gail Lesoski. “We’re honoring them for the many, many years of entertainment they’ve provided for people in our area.”
All three Tuscola County theaters are now outfitted with new digital projection equipment. Cass City’s The Cass Theatre purchased the equipment outright and The Vassar Theatre employed a successful online Kickstarter campaign that generated more than its $65,000 goal.
The Strand was able to obtain its equipment thanks to a lease-to-own program through the Tuscola County Economic Development Corporation’s (EDC) Equipment Lease Program. Fundraising efforts still are underway to help Strand owner Rick Farris pay off the balance of his loan.
“The (customers) we’ve heard from have loved it; people are loving it,” Strand owner Rick Farris said of the new digital picture. “In that last article (it said) the screen would be smaller, but it’s not; it’s going to be bigger. It’s eight inches wider and about four inches taller.
“It takes a little bit (to get used to the new equipment). In the long run it’s going to be a lot easier. No more film checkup; no more film buildup. I just want to thank the Tuscola County EDC and also would like to thank all the businesses that have donated to us and individuals.”
While Farris and his current staff learn the ins and outs of digital projection, past employees of the Strand spoke of their memories doing jobs that likely will remain the same: popping popcorn, selling concessions, serving as usher and yes, the thankless job of cleaning the floors after each show. In attendance for the impromptu stroll down Memory Lane were brothers Al and Chuck Lord, who worked at The Strand beginning in 1964 and 1963, respectively; siblings Patrick Woidan and Barb (Woidan) Jenshak who worked there around the same time; Mike DuRussel, who did “everything” at The Strand from 1996 to 98; Kristy Gohs who worked there from 1995-99; and Joan (Inglis) Dodge who worked concessions from 1968-73.
“My dad and mom ran the concession stand, so Patrick, he’s my brother, we both worked when we were like 12 and 13 making popcorn that we couldn’t sell, but our parents could sell,” said Barb (nee Woidan) Jenshak. “We could help them out. That would have been about 1961 around in there. And then I left in 1966 to go to college, but I did help my mother through some special movies. She ran the concession stand in the early 70s. My dad managed the movie, and my mom managed the concession stand. A lot of years there was probably more time spent here than at home, because (we showed movies) all day on Sundays. We would have to be here about 12:30 to get things ready and we were here until about 10 p.m. — there was no stop on Sundays.”
Brothers Al and Chuck Lord worked at The Strand in the mid-1960s.
“What I liked was when you had to change the marquee, and the Pub was down here and it was always 10 o’clock at night when we’d change the marquee for the new show that would start the next day,” Al Lord said. “You’d have drunks staggering out of the Pub and running into the ladder, which wasn’t that steady anyway.”
“And you’d do it in the middle of the winter, and you had the metal letters,” Chuck Lord said, “but they were made of a material that if you bumped them against something they’d break when it was cold out, so you had to be very careful. So you couldn’t wear gloves, but at the same time your hands were freezing so much you couldn’t feel the letters. So you tried to use the letters that were up on the marquee, and so they would put ‘first run hits’ and everything, and all of a sudden you’re moving letters around and you’ve got (a four-letter word) up there. Somebody’s honking the horn and Hank’s out there yelling at you. You’re freezing, you’re shaking and everything.”
Winter was a difficult time to be a theater employee, even for those not changing the marquee.
“I remember it was really cold when you sold the tickets in the wintertime because (the customers) were outside and the window was facing out and sometimes when you opened up that little slot the wind would just pour in, the snow and whatever it was doing out there,” Jenshak said.
“They used to have the Christmas movies here,” Al Lord said. “They were free to the kids, but people that wanted to make five, 10 bucks we went around and sold five, 10 dollars worth of tickets to the merchants in town and they gave them away. I can’t remember, I think they cost $75 and I got like two bucks.”
The wages earned by kids working at the Strand in the 1960s sound meager by today’s standards.
“The first amount I remember making was a dollar, 75 cents or a dollar, and they paid per hour,” Jenshak said.
“I got 37 and a half cents,” Chuck Lord said, “and they always made sure I had an odd number and they never rounded up, they always rounded down. Hey, they were in it to make a profit. See we’re related to (former owners) the Ashmans, and that’s how I got the job to begin with, at least myself, because we knew them.”
“The most I ever made was $2 (an hour),” Jenshak said.
“I think I started out at $3.50,” Gohs said.
“I went from 35 cents an hour selling popcorn to $3.65 running projectors,” Patrick Woidan said. “George (Hitchcock, who ran the projectors) taught me how to run projectors, and he told me, ‘Don’t ever tell them you know how to run the projectors, because then they’ll want you to run the projectors. One night they were looking for someone, and George says, ‘Well he knows how to run ‘em!’ Thanks, George!”
Sometimes you never know who will show up at the theater.
“We had the Independence Day national premiere, and we had aliens show up unexpectedly,” said Gohs, explaining that two people arrived to the show in full alien costume.
“I’ve got a picture in my office,” Farris said. “They scared people out front. One of them stood right out in front of the box office window like (a statue). He didn’t move, but every 30 people he touched one. The other one walked around in here.”
The Roadhouse Museum exhibit will have all kinds of nifty memorabilia on display, including art deco aisle lights, film reels, and dozens of film posters that Farris has given to the exhibit. Those who love the nostalgia of old theaters and those with an interest in The Strand’s future are urged to attend.
EDC executive director Steve Erickson explained that the EDC’s equipment lease program is designed to help small businesses obtain the equipment needed to expand their operations. The USDA also backs the equipment lease.
“Once we’ve initiated the equipment lease to a small business, that small business, once they take advantage of the program, we get about 50 percent of that money back from the USDA,” Erickson said. “When (the business) pays the money back, our money that was invested and the USDA investment all goes back into (the fund) and grows it so that we can do bigger and bigger loans or more and more loans as time goes by. As the money’s paid back we can flip it over again to somebody else.
“The Strand (loan) is just a little over $43,000, and all that equipment is also put on the personal property tax. So not only do they invest in the EDC which makes a little money off it; in this case, we’re offering a three-percent interest rate. Where can you go to get a three-percent interest rate on anything? It’s a very good value, and it makes it easier for these folks to make their payments, and it makes it reasonable, so hopefully they can hire more people and expand their present businesses with these dollars.”
Erickson said he’s taken in a movie at The Strand and seen the new equipment in action.
“I enjoy working with (Rick Farris), he’s a great guy and a great asset to downtown Caro, that’s for sure,” Erickson said. “The Strand, we did something very unusual because we know it’s a backbone of downtown Caro, (the loan) is for as much as eight years. Normally we don’t do anything like that, but in the case of the Strand we’re talking about a substantial amount of money.”
The Strand Theatre was built about 1920, and Farris started working there in 1976.
“I started out as an usher,” Farris told the Advertiser in a previous story. “From there I became the projectionist, then manager, and in 1994 I bought the business.”
For information about the Roadhouse Museum’s Strand Theatre exhibit, contact Gail Lesoski at (989) 673-5389. More information about The Strand can be found at carostrandtheatre.com.