Monday, March 10, 2008

A marque-worthy return Sunday, March 09, 2008

A marque-worthy return Sunday, March 09, 2008

Several dates stand out in the history of the Vassar Theatre, an art-deco movie house that first opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1937.
For example, a mural painted on the lobby wall recreates the long lines waiting to see its first feature, Barbara Stanwyck in ''Stella Dallas.'' Flood waters in 1986 reached more than halfway up the movie screen in the theater dubbed ''The Jewel of the Thumb,'' though you wouldn't guess it today.
''I asked why anyone would build a theater at the lowest point of a town known to flood, and people told me that in 1937, that's where everything was happening,'' said owner Tim O'Brien. ''That was the place to be.''
And in 2005, about 15 years after he purchased the movie house at 104 E. Huron, O'Brien opened the doors on a fully renovated theater with the Tom Cruise sci-fi adventure, ''War of the Worlds.''
But for The Process' David Asher, the defining moment was a night in 1990 -- or was it 1991? -- when the newly formed rock-reggae band took its show to the Vassar Theatre stage.
On Saturday, March 22, he and bandmates Garrick Owen, Bill Heffelfinger and Gabe Gonzalez will return, with psychedelic films, more than 30 music-synchronized lasers, a pig head and lots of music. The band Stamp'd, along with Aaron Link and Jim Perkins, will open the show, which begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $6.
''We've stayed in touch, and it was over a few beers that we thought it would be fun to do again after all these years,'' O'Brien said of the homecoming. ''And this was one of those rare beer discussions where it still sounds good the next day. We're welcoming our hometown guys back to where it all began.''
The theater was built by Howard and Stanley Smith for $50,000, though most people today remember Harry Smith as the man who kept it in operation.
''When I was a kid, coming here for movies, the film would keep breaking, and we'd yell, 'Pedal faster, Harry, pedal faster,''' Asher remembered. ''It was 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes,' and the place was dingier, but it had the same clock and the same look.''
The theater, sitting at the very bottom of the hill in downtown Vassar, has gone through a number of changes since then, not all for the good. At one point, an owner even sold it to the city of Vassar for $1, long before it came into O'Brien's possession. O'Brien scheduled a few events, such as The Process concert 18 years ago, after buying it in 1990, but his Green Acres Cinema in Saginaw and the State Theatre in Bay City took up more of his attention.
Ultimately, it was the Vassar house that paid off, though he says he still regrets not bringing the State to its full potential. While not as opulent as the Temple or as versatile as the State, the 371-seat Vassar Theatre does have its own charm, from the vintage feel of the women's bathroom to Jerry Ragg's towering murals.
''Old theaters are always a work in progress,'' O'Brien said. ''Even when you're finished redoing everything, there's something that's ready to be done over again. It's a long and exhaustive process.'' The Process' show isn't likely to launch a string of live performances -- ''First-run films are our bread and butter,'' O'Brien said -- but it is part of a trend among theater owners, of finding ways to reach new audiences.
The Saginaw 8 in Kochville Township tapped into live broadcasts of performances from the Metropolitan Opera. Fashion Square Cinemas kept the box office hopping with concert films featuring Hannah Montana and U2. Cinema Hollywood in Birch Run hosts Battle-of-the-Bands competitions, coupled with first-run movies.
On the live front, Pit and Balcony Community Theatre is looking for ways to build on the recent crowd-pleasing tribute to ''The Last Waltz,'' featuring mid-Michigan musicians.
And the Temple Theatre in Saginaw and the State in Bay City have filled schedules with a blend of live performances and films both art and classic.
''It's the first time since we reopened that we've done anything like this,'' O'Brien said. ''We're not making any money on it, of course, but if the demand is there, the potential to do more is, too. This is a good way for us to gauge the interest.''
The Process comes with a long history as well.
''Bill, Garrick and I grew up together right on top of the hill in Vassar,'' Asher said. ''Bill and I used to play in a crib together, that's how far back we go. Garrick lived around the corner; he was seven years younger, but he had a sister, Patty, who was really good-looking, so we knew the family.''
The band, with its Rastafarian roots, soon emerged from its small-town beginnings, building an audience around mid-Michigan, and in time around the country and most recently in Europe. Gonzalez replaced original drummer Arik Aneszko, who moved to Chicago, but The Process is working its way toward its 20th anniversary relatively intact.
Seth Payton from Stamp'd is one watching The Process closely, hoping to achieve the same with his own band.
''We started so young, we never took our music seriously until we were too caught up in other things to pursue it,'' said Seth Payton from Stamp'd. ''We were 14; we were just bouncing around.'' ''Life happens,'' Asher agreed. ''You can't put your life on hold. The power will take you where you should be, the power that comes from God.
''We had a showcase once with Virgin Records, and I think today, the way a major label redesigns you, that we probably wouldn't be here today if we had signed.
''The Internet has been very good for us. It's made the world smaller. We can record from all over the globe, we can write music with people in London, we can get our music to people everywhere.''
And sometimes, Payton added, it's good to get back to your roots.
''I have the greatest admiration for The Process and the way the guys are sticking it out, doing things their way,'' O'Brien said. ''I'm glad they're coming back to where it began, too. They've really pulled it all together.''
Sue White covers entertainment for The Saginaw News. You may reach her at 776-9601.


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