Editor’s note: With 2014 marking the Homer News 50th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to look at Homer’s past. The Homer Theatre has been providing entertainment for area audiences for more than 57 years, but it wasn’t the first theater to show movies.
Dominating the corner of Pioneer Avenue and Main Street, the Homer Theatre brings Hollywood’s newest, popular documentaries, movies from yesteryears and Metropolitan Opera to audiences at the end of the road.
Want to watch the Super Bowl in the company of friends while munching popcorn? Step inside. Want to use a movie to raise funds for your nonprofit? No problem. Need a stage to perform? That can be arranged.
During more than a half century of existence, the Homer Theatre has dug its roots deep into the Homer landscape, an outgrowth of its predecessor, the Skyway Theatre.
“As far as I know the Skyway Theatre was the first one,” said long-time Homer resident Ray Kranich of the business owned by Harry Hegdahl. “That would have been somewhere in the late 1940s or early 1950s.”
The Skyway Theatre was originally located where the Homer United Methodist Church now sits. The films it showed were shipped to Homer from Anchorage. When the building burned, the owner relocated the theater to a Quonset hut near Bishop’s Beach and brought on Bob Turkington to run it for him.
“We were sitting there on just regular folding chairs and had to change the film now and then while the audiences sat in the dark and had to wait while it got changed,” said Turkington of the theater that he recalled having room for audiences of 20-25 people.
“The owner encouraged our boys to buy his equipment, but did not have much — (a) small projector and a sheet hung on the wall,” Kranich’s mother, the late Arlene Kranich, wrote in a chapter on Homer in “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: A Small History of the Western Kenai.”
The idea appealed to Kranich and his brother, Bill, and they persuaded their parents, Bob and Arlene, that it was a good opportunity.
Kranich was a student at Homer High at the time, but would hurry to the site at the end of the school day to help with the construction that was supervised by his brother Bill. An engineering student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Bill Kranich took time off from his studies to complete the family project.
“He had a local crew hired, mostly six guys putting the shell of the building up,” said Kranich.
Steel framework for the structure was shipped in pieces from the Lower 48. The building was divided into five 20-foot bays and erected one bay at a time.
“Bill had everything all figured out. They’d stand the steel framework up for a bay and then start putting the sheeting on,” said Kranich. “Then they’d stand the next bay and carry right on with the sheeting, insulation that was put over the framework and tin over the top of it held it in place.”
By Christmas 1956, the construction of the Family Theatre, named for the family enterprise it had become, was complete.
“We gave a free show to the community as a Christmas gift,” Arlene Kranich wrote in her chapter on Homer.
That first movie was “The Command,” a 1954 Western that starred Guy Madison and Gordon MacRea.
“The first two nights were free and it was packed,” said Kranich of the theater’s 230 seats.
The theater was open Tuesday through Sunday and showed three different films a week. Although it was before the days when movies were rated, the Kranichs developed their own rating system.
“They had a buyer in the states, a couple down there in Seattle, and they would read the reviews of all the movies, even the old ones, and give the folks a thumbs up or thumbs down on the group of movies they’d recommended buying,” said Kranich. “There never would have been anything less than a PG13 in there. They were super picky.”
The films, weighing about 100 pounds a movie, were shipped by steamship to Seward, sometimes on to Moose Pass by railroad.
“Dad would drive over with a three-quarter ton pickup and fill the back up with a couple thousand pounds of movies. We’d get them about a month at a time, keep them that long and then ship them back.”
Now, with digital technology, a film can be sent by air mail on a hard drive.
Turkington originally had doubts when the Kranichs decided to try their hand at operating a theater in Homer.
“I told them they’d never make it,” said Turkington of his advice to the Kranich family. “But they did fine.”
Around 1970, the Kranichs sold the theater to Duane and Helen Belnap.
“Mom was retired from being postmaster. Dad had previously retired from the highway department. They wanted to be able to go do some traveling and not be tied up,” said Kranich.
Following the Belnaps, Kranich recalled the theater being owned by the Dailey brothers. Another party may have owned it for a time either before or after the Daileys and before it passed to Bob Sedlock, but Kranich said he wasn’t sure.
In 2002, when the Suttons learned Sedlock had the theater for sale, they immediately took steps to become the new owners. Ten years ago, the Suttons launched the Homer Documentary Film Festival. In 2011, they gave the 50-plus year business an upgrade, bringing the theater into the
digital age. That upgrade has made it possible to include
the New York’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD in the
The Suttons also put in new seats, remodeled the lobby and, with the help of carpenter Akati Kalugin, added a new façade that evokes the Gold Rush era of Alaska and the Klondike — what the theater would have looked like if it had been built when Homer was founded in the 19th century, Jamie Sutton said.
Colleen Carroll, who has managed the theater for seven of the past 10 years, said creating a dinner theater has been discussed between the Suttons and herself.
“That’s always been a dream Jamie, Lynette and I shared where certain parts of the theater are set apart where you can dine and watch a movie at the same time,” said Carroll.
Even with big-screen television sets, people still go out to the movies, and investors keep building movie theaters, Sutton said.
“The experience inside the theater continues. I’m not sure why or what it is, but there is this phenomena of people coming in to enjoy and watching and being transported,” he said. “Not only do you get to go out of your house, out of your cabin, once you’re there you get to go to the Caribbean or outer space or the streets of San Francisco.”
For now, however, the Suttons’ message to the community remains the same as that of all the theater’s owners over the years: “See you at the movies.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.
Corner of Main Street and Pioneer Avenue
Founded 1956 as the Family Theatre by the Bob and Arlene Kranich Family
Jamie and Lynette Suttons
Previous owners: Duane and Helen Belnap, the Dailey Brothers, Bob Sedlock.
Opened December 1956
First film shown, December 1956:
“The Command,” 1954, starring Guy Madison and
First digital film shown, September 2011: “The Help”
First digital 3-D film shown, September 2011: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” by Werner Herzog
Capacity: 230 seats
Weight of a movie, 1956: 100 pounds
Weight of a movie, 2014 (digital hard drive): 5 pounds
Cost of a movie, 35mm film print: $2,000
Cost of a movie, digital hard drive: $100