In the 1939 movie, “Babes in Arms,” Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland created one of the classic themes of cinema, “let’s put on a show,” the idea of fixing up an old barn or theater and putting on a revue.
It’s in that spirit that one day almost 12 years ago Jamie and Lynette Sutton drove by the Homer Theatre and saw a for-sale sign on it.
“Let’s buy the theater,” Jamie Sutton said. “We’ll fix it up.”
Now, after a new façade, landscaping, new seats, a new sound system and Homer’s first digital movie projector, the Suttons are stepping back from the business and putting the venerable old Homer Theatre up for sale.
This week, the Suttons have listed the Homer Theatre with Phillip Alderfer at the Alderfer Group real estate agency. It’s a turn-key, package deal, with building, lot, movie equipment, popcorn machine and even an original Don Henry sculpture made from old film projector parts.
“I was a little surprised. Their kids are grown and they’re doing their own thing,” said Homer Theatre manager Colleen Carroll, who has managed the theater for almost nine years. “It’s going to be sad, though. They breathed a lot of life into the theater and made a lot of changes.”
Sutton says the Homer Theatre is “the longest uninterrupted movie house in Alaska,” that is, the oldest existing theater that has continually run movies in the same place.
The Suttons live in Stinson Beach, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, but have been frequent Homer visitors. Lynnette Sutton, then Lynnette Stockfleth, came to Homer 33 years ago and built a cabin near Mile 11 East End Road. The Suttons and their children, McCandless or “Mac,” Alex and Thea kept the cabin. Lynette’s mother, Geegee Stockfleth, lived in Homer for 13 years, and recently moved to California.
In addition to owning a theater, Jamie Sutton is a criminal defense lawyer and a former San Francisco assistant district attorney. He also runs a company, V-DAC, or Vehicle Donation to Any Charity, a program that connects people willing to donate used cars with nonprofit organizations. Dealers buy the cars at auction and the proceeds go to charity.
It was on one of their visits about 1999 the Suttons saw that former owner Bob Sedlock had put the theater up for sale. They quickly made an offer and bought it.
The Robert and Arlene Kranich family built the Homer Theatre in 1956, a big metal shell. It opened in December 1956 with a showing of “The Command,” a Western starring Guy Madison.
When the Suttons bought the theater in November 2002, the first thing they did was replace its ancient movie seats that had “more duct tape than fabric on the cushions,” Jamie Sutton said.
They put an ad in the Homer News and a Bush line on KBBI offering the seats to anyone who wanted them; one pair is now on the front porch of Two Sisters. In two nights they replaced the seats. It was Lynette Sutton’s idea to put couches in the back and front.
Replacing the seats started a round of renovations, including:
• New French drains,
• A remodel of the lobby area,
• Grading and construction of a back parking lot,
• Landscaping; and
• Construction of a Gold Rush theme board-and-batten façade.
The new front is intended to evoke the feeling of a Nome street during the Gold Rush, Sutton said. Remarkably, it’s the same vision artist R.W. Tyler had in 1964 when city officials suggested a unified theme for Pioneer Avenue.
Carpenter Akati Kalugin got a translation in Russian and Cyrillic letters that says “Homer Theatre,” and that sign went up on the front, a nod to the popularity of movies among the lower Kenai Peninsula’s Russian Old Believers.
“I always thought we ought to say out loud to the Russian community, ‘We here in Homer view you as part of the community,’” Sutton said.
A big boulder unearthed during construction got plunked down in a rock garden in the front of the theater. Carpenters built a bench, and Sutton put one of artist Bob Ritchie’s “stick man” sculptures on the bench — wearing a ball cap and holding a box of popcorn.
“What’s cool is a lot of people sit on the bench because it’s got this nice view and sit next to the stick man and get their picture taken,” Sutton said.
In terms of the movie-going experience, the big improvements have been a Dolby digital sound system and, in 2011, installation of a digital projection system. Going digital also made it possible to show for the first time ever 3-D films. The sound system includes speakers in the bathroom.
“That was my wife’s idea, and a great idea,” Jamie Sutton said. “You could go into the bathroom in the middle of the movie and still hear what’s going on.”
One of the biggest improvements came in programming. In 2004 the Suttons started the Homer Documentary Film Festival.
“We thought, if you own a movie theater, you’ve got to have a film festival,” Sutton said.
Mac Sutton has been helping run the DocFest, as the Suttons call it. One request they have of the sale is that the DocFest keep going. Sutton said he’d like the opportunity to keep putting it on every year.
Sutton even snagged a coup, maybe the only small town showing of the Live from the Met Metropolitan Opera series, high-definition digital films of the New York opera program. He was in New York and approached Metropolitan Opera officials about doing the Live from the Met operas in Homer. There were two slots left.
“They were thinking of all the major markets in the United States, and did they have all them covered?” Sutton said, “And I said, ‘We have one here.’”
Other programming includes offering the theater for rentals, as one man did as a Valentine’s Day present to his girlfriend, or for nonprofit groups. The theater is closed on Thursday nights in the winter, and organizations like the Kachemak Ski Club, Homer Animal Friends and Cook Inletkeeper regularly show films then. Some showings for regular films also are fundraisers for organizations.
“We’ve always thought of the theater as a community and cultural resource,” Sutton said.
Carroll and assistant manager Abbi Rios keep the theater going. Both of them started their working careers in the movie business. Carrol worked at a San Diego, Calif., theater. Rios started working at the Homer Theatre at age 16, and has been there 14 years.
The theater also has eight part-time employees, mostly teenagers and young adults.
Carroll said she hopes whoever buys the theater has the same philosophy as the Suttons.
“They’re excited about a new business adventure, they can breathe some new life into,” she said.
Just as Alice’s Champagne Palace got some new owners willing to preserve and improve a community institution, so Carroll said she hopes the Homer Theatre will attract the same kind of buyer.
“It’s a fun business. It’s a fun industry. I think it will bring a lot of fun challenges, but in a good way,” she said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.