Sometime in the early spring of 1985, a group of civic leaders headed by Loren Adgate of the then First Security bank, Ron Storey and one or two of his officers at the rival Ionia County National Bank and several leading industrialists met in a downtown restaurant to discuss the need to do something about improving the area’s public schools. The impetus for the meeting was due to a crisis of sorts when one of the leading manufacturers threatened to pull up stakes and move elsewhere if the community didn’t do something about its schools since the enterprise depended on its labor force having at least a modicum of learning, an ability to read, cipher, maybe even read a blue print or two. Being the area’s largest employer this was indeed serious business.
Ionia had once been a thriving boomtown. Back in the second quarter of the 19th century it was said to be the second largest city in the Michigan of Lewis Cass. Home to the land office, it was the place to be if you were going to stake a claim, making the City a hub of activity, lawyers, courtrooms, bars, brothels….yes brothels… almost 75 of them by one count in a city of roughly 8,000 souls. (1) Later the town would be home to the Hudson automobile production facilities as well as the largest wicker furniture factory in the world. By now, however, industry had long since been in decline with much of Main Street feeling the impact. It had been over 30 years since the good citizens of the city had passed a bond issue and the schools were in a dilapidated condition, underperforming as many such schools do. Now the city fathers gathered to try to do something to stem the tide.
In the middle of the discussion about what to do with the failing schools, Monroe Macpherson, owner and operator of WION a 5,000 watt A.M local radio station, rose to speak. The local theatre, he pointed out, had been put up for sale and listed by a local real estate firm by the now defunct W.S. Butterfield Theatre Company. Waxing long and convincingly about the architectural splendor of the old house, its centrality to the now declining business district and the need for a venue to bring in cultural events, the group assembled agreed to form a rump committee charged with the task of arranging financing and saving the theatre. Having commandeered the proceedings, Macpherson set about organizing his group while the parent assembly got back to the business at hand. The upshot is that the Theatre Group formed around remnants of the Downtown Development Authority, (DDA a quasi-public spin-off of the Chamber of Commerce), bank officials, and personages interested in the cultural enrichment of the community, set about gathering contributions from excited citizens and arranging mortgage financing with both the local banks secured by the government of the City of Ionia.
And so it was that the City of Ionia went about, with the help of Democratic Governor James Blanchard and his Department of Education, local merchants and banks, and concerned citizens, financing and building a new High School and upgrading several primary and secondary facilities finally moving students out of converted mobile homes then serving as classrooms into solid facilities. And so it was too that the City of Ionia allowed itself to be dragged into the awkward posture of taking over operations of the downtown movie house. It was a secondary responsibility to be sure, operating behind several layers of emerging bureaucracy with first the Ionia Theatre board of control, itself operating under the aegis of the Downtown Development Authority, in the end sanctioned by the City which had secured the financing loans and held final fiduciary responsibility as well as liability. For a group of small business, small-town conservatives, this was a very strange position to justify. The irony was never lost on me. These very souls who could see no government role in meeting the needs of the needy, who steadfastly derided food stamps, housing subsidies, or any relief for the poor, somehow came to see as critical to the mission of local governance the need to operate a downtown movie house.
And what a splendid little movie house it was. Built by the W.S. Butterfield Corporation in 1932 on the site of an old Hotel and located in the heart of the city a block or so due west of the County Courthouse the Theatre was originally built as a duel functioning facility designed to produce live stage productions as well as exhibit motion pictures. The theatre was constructed at precisely the time that the then emerging “talkies” (introduced 5 years earlier) were making films all the rage and were to put a swift end to old Vaudeville. The result was that there weren’t many stage productions in the ensuing years, although the Theatre would feature dressing rooms, an orchestra pit, and all the stage rigging to put on a right professional production.
It was these facilities that Monroe skillfully fashioned into a fine tapestry as he argued for saving the grand old house from the wrecking ball. “Mac”, as he was affectionately called, was a dreamer. As a boy, I was told by several of his relatives, he dreamed of being on the radio—then the dominant medium in the America of the 30’s and 40’s. While other boys honed their skills on the playing field, Mac, it was said, would sit on the sidelines and call the game like it was a live broadcast going out over the “airwaves”. It was a dream that would never leave him. Later he would serve in the military working as a reporter for an armed services publication and when he returned home, just prior to the Korean conflict, his father who was a wealthy—for these parts—poultry farmer, built his young son his own radio station. Actually two of them, one in Ionia the aforementioned A.M. facility and an F.M. station located15 miles or so to the West in Lowell Michigan. And so it was the Mac gained entry to the business community of his home town, the local chamber of commerce, and when the time came, membership on the board of the Ionia Free Fair “The World’s Largest Free Fair”. These positions, if they did not bring riches to his radio station, brought him standing in the community. Mac was always good for a promotional idea, always trying to attract the “big” names. On the Free Fair board he pressed to drop the standard venues and bring in national and international performing acts. The result is that the fair began to feature performers like Willie Nelson, Jefferson Starship, Blood Sweat and Tears, George Burns, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys, to name a few. So big did it become that it was said that for two shows on a night of the Fair, Willie Nelson commanded $120,000. in cash. It was arranged for a Brinks truck to pick up the money at the local banks and deliver it to the fairgrounds. Old “Mac” had a reputation for promoting, usually through his radio station, mostly through his work with the Fair. When he spoke people listened. And on this day he spoke about coming to the rescue of the grand old lady.
And what a grand old lady she was; for she was grand no more. The years of neglect had indeed taken its toll, with the result that the splendid facility that once dominated Main Street had become, like so much of the old Butterfield chain, the flotsam and jetsam floating like so much corporate wreckage on the landscape of the countryside. Like the dilapidated Vogue Theatre in Manistee, and the deteriorating hulks long since closed in other downtowns, the Ionia Theatre stood, by then, like a ghost hovering over the landscape. The Marquee was rotted, with only half the lights working. The furnace had long since ceased to function and, since boilers are not cheap, Butterfield had made the business decision to operate the Theatre only during the period of the year when the ambient temperature within the house was such that it would not be uncomfortable, limiting operations to only the summer and a few months in the spring and fall. The projection equipment was old, in fact there were parts of the projectors, long since disconnected, upon which one put long playing records. This was technology used with the introduction of sound back in the late ‘20’s’ and no doubt original to the construction. In 1980, when the Butterfield home offices moved from the old First National Bank Building in downtown Detroit to their new offices in Troy, the phone company took the equipment, old patch-cord switch boards, telephones with hand switches to change lines, etc., and put the system in a museum. So it was in Ionia, what the city fathers were inheriting was a rusting, rotting, museum piece. Undeterred these local businessmen, hardened realists and bedrock conservatives though they be, went about the business of resurrecting the grand old lady. It would cost a small fortune to salvage the lotus dream of the local booster.