The Curtain's Up: The Story of the Sauk Theatre

Where can a postal clerk behave like a hunter in Escanaba; or a retired artist paint a woodland scene as a backdrop for a theatre production; or a retired State policeman play the harp in an orchestra pit and see three of his original plays come to life on stage; or a small child discover the thrill of being in the spotlight; or an 80 year old act his age in front of an appreciative audience?  These are all part of the history of the Sauk Theatre in Jonesville, where, over the past 38 years, thousands of people of all ages from Hillsdale County and beyond have had opportunities to test and display heir varied talents.      

When I first came to Hillsdale in 1967, the Sauk Theatre didn’t exist.  Oh, the building was there, but it had not functioned as a theatre for many years.  Village offices occupied the front lobby area.  Each week an archery club met in the empty auditorium to shoot arrows toward targets set up in front of the screen.  But I’m getting ahead of the story.  Let me take you for a stroll down memory lane.

It’s October 31,1905, and the first show, “Royal Chef”, is being presented to a packed house at the brand new Opera House in downtown Jonesville.  Ticket prices ranged from $5 to $25, (quite expensive in those days) depending on the location of the seats.  The townspeople had been asked not to burn their lights that night, so there would be enough power for the stage lights.  (In spite of this request, Charles Wade, the Village President, in his eagerness to get to the Theatre, forgot and left his house in a blaze of light.) The Opera House was one of the largest and finest theatres in the area, with a seating capacity of 500.  (Smaller opera houses existed in Litchfield, Homer and Hudson.)  First-rate professional stage plays from Detroit and Chicago would make one-night stands in Jonesville as they travelled between those cities and usually played to full houses.  The passenger trains that served Jonesville at the time brought patrons from other towns to enjoy the performances. The building seated 300 on the main floor, 100 in the balcony and 100 in the gallery.  A rigging loft, extending 45 feet above the stage, provided space to store different backdrops (They were called “flies”.) that could be lowered during performances.  The stage was 30 feet wide and 32 feet deep and had 3 trap doors, located right, left and center stage, allowing some interesting special effects.  Actors or props could disappear from view by dropping into an 8 foot deep tunnel beneath the stage. There was also a dressing room backstage for the star.  The theatre had a pit for its fine six piece orchestra under the direction of William Kilby, a violinist.   They were capable of handling the musical score for any professional production that stopped in Jonesville.  An Official Theatrical Guide, published in 1907 in New York, listed the Henderson Stock Company, and Richard Henderson, one of the Managers, played on the stage in Jonesville. He was a handsome man who captured the heart of many a fair maiden with his fine acting. The Guide listed Jonesville’s population as 1500 at that time. 

The names of the early shows were part of live theatre 100 years ago but probably not familiar to anyone now – including me.  “Graustark”, “The Light Eternal”, “St. Elmo”, “David Harum” and “The Holy City” were some of the titles.  One year, Rose Coghlan, an actress of prominence from the Detroit Opera House, was scheduled to perform in “The Duke of Killicrankie”, and she was told in Jackson that she was coming to an old hay barn.  When she arrived on the train, the town presented none too promising a view and she believed she had been told the truth.  Trunks containing her beautiful gowns were left at the depot and the second best costumes were brought for the evening’s performance.  Then, on the night of the play, the young star came out on the stage and told the audience what a splendid theater they had and announced that she had ordered the drayman to bring the trunks containing her best wardrobe for her to wear in the performance.  It was a proud moment for the people in Jonesville.  

The Theater used some unique innovations to entertain their patrons.  For instance,  in 1907, when the play “When Knighthood Was In Flower” was presented, Zera Homes, the director, agreed to set up the first act of the production in full view of the audience.  It gave the audience a splendid idea of how quickly the set for a massive production of this kind could be set up when in the hands of skilled men.

Sometimes local talent would perform at the Opera House.  Such productions as “Cherry Blossoms” and “Circus Sally” were presented using local talent, and laughable mistakes were not uncommon.

part of a deserted husband.  He appeared on stage, in despair, with his forsaken child.  In anguish, he sobbed out the words, “Oh, Ethel, Ethel, how could you do this?”  Then he raised his arms to the heavens, and it was the proper moment for the curtain to fall quickly.  But, no curtain!  Three times he repeated the line, with his arms in the air, amid resounding laughter from the audience before the curtain finally descended.  It effectively destroyed the seriousness of the moment.


Bud Vear

For an interesting look at Michigan Opera Houses and Old Time Theaters, check out this website: