Gratiot County Goes to the Movies: Breckenridge’s “Gratiot Theatre,” 1948-1956

Above, clockwise from upper left: The Gratiot Theatre debuts in 1948; Fourteen cents Wednesday movie nights; Howe Memorial Library, the former theater; 1948 Opening Headline; Earl Peterson plays at the Gratiot, 1950s; the front door as it looks today.

It was constructed with a Quonset hut over seventy years ago, but today it serves as the village library. For almost ten years, Breckenridge’s village had one of Gratiot County’s newest movie houses, known as the Gratiot Theatre.

Before World War II ended, some businessmen already had the idea of opening a new movie theater in Breckenridge. In March 1945, they announced tentative plans to construct an L-shaped building with an entrance on Saginaw Street, situated between the Chisolm store and village hall. A shortage of building materials during the war, such as lumber, meant that this movie house would be built with cinder blocks. Builders also hoped that the new theater would have new shops go in around it.  However, three years would pass before the idea of a movie theater came to being.

Building a new movie theater in Breckenridge was crucial to improving the business district after the war. In early March 1948, a $70,000 theater debuted, made from a large Quonset hut and first called “The Gratiot.” This time, five local businessmen sponsored the construction and leased the building to Jack McCluskey, who also operated the Central Theater in Merrill.  The Breckenridge theater’s entrance measured two stories high, with a 40 by 100-foot auditorium and an 18 by 40-foot lobby.

The entrance featured a $5,000 marquee, and inside the main floor sloped toward the screen, which allowed easy viewing for 500 people. A crying room existed for mothers with children. There were also hearing aids available for the deaf, and the Gratiot Theatre had modern restrooms. A new, current air conditioning system costing $6,000 changed the air every ten minutes.

In the early spring of 1948, flyers encouraged people to come and see “Central Michigan’s finest small-town theatre.” One of the first movies featured “State Fair,” starring Dick Haymes, Jeanne Crain, and Dana Andrews. Anyone wanting upcoming movie programs could have them mailed to them upon request.

Owners frequently used promotions to get viewers into the Gratiot Theatre. During Christmas 1949, the theater gave away free turkeys on one Wednesday night. Barbershop quartets benefiting the American Legion held performances beginning in 1950. Another regular  feature was “14 Cents Wednesday Nights.” In late 1952, Earl Peterson, “Michigan’s Singing Cowboy,” appeared on stage. Peterson and his group, Sons of the Golden West, came to the Gratiot more than once to give performances.

In early February 1953, Cassidy Theaters Incorporated of Midland took over the Gratiot Theatre operations. The Gratiot then became the fifth theater in the Cassidy chain with the Strand Theater in Alma. Keith Musser, who headed the Strand, came to Breckenridge as manager. Musser also brought some of the ideas for promotions that he used in Alma to get people into the Gratiot Theatre. One of these near Easter 1953 advertised that ticket purchasers could win a free baby Lepus from the stage. Curious and excited people around Breckenridge who went to the show that night found out that Keith Musser was giving away free rabbits.

While management tried to continue to make the Gratiot Theatre successful, it apparently could not compete with a new drive-in theater in Gratiot County and movie houses in both Alma and St. Louis.  Although movies continued in Breckenridge for a few more years, by early 1956, the Gratiot Theatre closed its doors.

After it closed, the former theater became known as the village “Civic Center” and housed the firehouse, a library, and the city restrooms. The old lobby of the Gratiot became the village library and held some 2,000 books in the early 1960s. Some find it surprising that Breckenridge ever had a movie theater, but it did.

Today, from the street, the village library in Breckenridge has a large front that partially covers the  Quonset hut roof, a reminder that movies played there in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed