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Soo Theatre a throwback to 1930

“The historic Soo Theatre building has an interesting past” – Soo Theatre Executive Director Colleen Arbic

It was March 12, 1930 when Butterfield Michigan Theatres celebrated the grand opening of its 85th theatre in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

The 100 linear foot structure along Ashmun Street only took M.N. Hunt six-months to build, laying its first bricks in late August of 1929. William P. Whitney of Chicago was its sole architect, while United Studios President E.R. Nickel of Chicago served as the creative mastermind behind its “unique” interior design. 

“The historic Soo Theatre building has an interesting past,” Soo Theatre Executive Director Colleen Arbic once wrote about the city staple. 

Arbic described building as “beautiful,” exhibiting a large auditorium with a fully equipped stage, four storefronts and nine apartments.

“As originally built it had 1,185 red leather seats, and a stage 88 feet wide and 24 feet deep, so that legitimate stage productions and other live entertainment was possible.” – “City of the Rapids,” written by Bernie Arbic.  

Its brick and cement auditorium was touted as “fireproof” during a time when fires had ravaged many structures across the Upper Peninsula. Concrete lies under the stage floor and covers the autorium. 

“The roof is built on steel supports,” Arbic said. “Interior walls between the auditorium and the lobby are built of clay construction tile.”

‘Jazz’ plaster was known for its acoustic properties, and applied over brick throughout the auditorium and lobby. The theatre's design concept was heavily influenced by Spanish culture and trends, closely imitating a “Spanish Palace.”

“The decoration was highly artistic, overseen by Italian artist Frank DeAngelus,” said Arbic. “The ‘jazz’ plaster was uneven and multi-colored paints were applied in a mottled effect, or perhaps the plaster was colored. Although one color blends into and through the other, the colors for the main are red, blue, cream and gold. The predominant color of walls, carpeting, draperies and curtains are red and gold. Spanish bracket lamps lit the side walls. A cove molding at the juncture of the walls and ceiling hid red, blue, and amber colored lights. Novel effects played over the walls and ceiling, made possible from an effects spot light in the projection booth.”

The entrances to all nine apartments was off Ashmun. Four faced main street. The remaining five faced a small roof garden between the apartments and the theatre proper.

Its four storefronts were occupied by various businesses over the years, including The American Café owned by Peter Gianakura until 1989. Its new owners operated there until 1996, when the restaurant moved to a larger space across the street.

Gianakura told several tales of the Soo Theatre in his book, “The American Café – Reflections from the Grill.” Gianakura celebrated his 100th birthday this past March with friends and family by his side.

According to Arbic’s research, Kinney Shoes occupied two spaces until 1942. Other spaces were filled by The Bo-Ca Shop, The Style Shop, Marilyn Shop, Squire and Milady, Erard’s Jewlery, France-Paquin Shoes, Mack Stationery, Sault Gift Shop, Silver Linings Antiques, Northland Printing Company, The Cake and Wedding Center, Blair Decors and others.

In conjunction with movies, the theatre entertained the public with various vaudeville shows well into the 1940’s.

“Local people remember seeing magicians, hypnotists, concerts, and student productions, especially students at the branch campus of Michigan College of Mining and Technology (Lake Superior State University) on the Soo Theatre stage,” Arbic said.

A local group took over the theatre in 1934, changing its name to Soo Amusement Company. Charles DePaul and his son, Joseph, bought out all other interests in 1939 to become sole owners. 

“Three generations of the DePaul family owned and operated the Soo Theatre building until it was closed in 1998 and put up for sale,” said Arbic. “The building sat vacant until it was purchased by Soo Theatre Project, Inc. in 2003.”

There were many interior and exterior transformations over a 92 year period. 

“The original marquee was rectangular with rotating lights and a large vertical 'SOO' sign on top,” said Arbic. “It was replaced in 1940 by a v-shaped marquee, and another layer of signage was added in 1974. A block wall was built that divided the theatre into the Red and Blue movie theatres and the interior was “modernized” in 1974. The stage was hidden behind another block wall. The façade of the building above the stores was covered by an aluminum decorative rack. A mansard roof was added to the façade between the two stories.”

A suspended ceiling draped over walls covered by panelling, while theatre auditorium walls were covered with fabric. The theatre’s original ticket booth was located inside the building. It was moved to the north corner by the 1950’s.  

“At some point the wooden and glass panel entrance doors were replaced by metal doors,” said Arbic. “Many people have stopped by Soo Theatre since 2003 to say they worked for the DePauls as ushers, ticket sellers, projectionists, concession workers, etc.”

DePaul had converted the theatre into a cinema.

“The story of the Soo Theatre Project, Inc. is an ongoing example of community involvement, determination, and a vision to save a historic building on Sault Ste. Marie’s main street and to renovate and restore the building to become a regional center for the arts,” said Arbic. “The Soo Theatre is one of a handful of historic theaters still remaining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has already become a beacon for the arts in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan since its purchase in 2003.”

Justin Knepper of Knepper Development Strategies has since assisted in the theatre's restoration back to 1940-something.

"The Soo Theatre Project, Inc. launched a fundraiser in 2021, and has so far raised $275,000 toward the restoration of the entire exterior, which in total is estimated at $640,500," said Knepper. "This exterior façade portion of the project is estimated as follows: $90,430.25 for the restoration of the marquee; $85,000 for brick and masonry restoration; $150,000 for primary entry, storefronts and windows, and $10,000 plus in engineering costs."

Marquee restoration contracts were awarded to Chalou Designs of Ann Arbor, Mich. Masonry restoration contracts were awarded to Northern Restoration and Waterproof Systems of Grawn, Mich.

"We are now focused on reaching our fundraising goal of $150,000 for the Theatre’s primary entry, storefronts, and upper windows," said Knepper. "We are very pleased to announce that The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently awarded the Soo Theatre $5,000 toward engineering design work for storefront restoration, and that we have contracted with architectural firm Sidock Group to prepare construction documents for this component of the project."

The Soo Theatre Project is currently in the process of applying for additional grants to help restore its storefronts, windows and main entrance.