By Kurt J. Kolka
Keeping a family business going under the same family for 102 years is almost unheard of today. In Grayling, however, Rialto Theater has marched along with the community, becoming part of its long history.
George Olsen purchased the theater, then called the Grayling Opera House (established in 1882), from its previous owner in 1915. Olsen was an accountant for a lumber company back then and the theater was a side business.
His wife, Leelah, would accompany the silent films with a piano. However, if a big motion picture came in, the scores would be performed by Ed Clark and his orchestra.
On Easter weekend of April 1930, the theater caught fire. Olsen rushed back in when he couldn’t find the projectionist in the crowd outside. Once in, he found the projectionist gone and managed to rescue the next movie to be shown, “Anna Christie,” featuring Greta Garbo. He was badly burned.
Olsen’s grandson, George Stancil, said in those days the film used was made of celluloid nitrate which was highly combustible. Later, the film industry learned how to make it fireproof.
Amazingly, an architect from Detroit was brought in and the new theater was up and running three months after the fire.
Originally, there was no concession stand. Attendees could smoke but not eat or drink inside. Eventually, in the ’40s, Olsen allowed the concessions in. Also, during the ’40s, the new marquee was installed and the outside took on the appearance locals are familiar with today.
Olsen’s daughter, Georgianna and her husband Thomas “Tommy” Stancil, later inherited the business. During that time, their son George Stancil began working there at the age of eight.
“I remember during the ’50s and into the early ’60s, in the summer, the National Guard would come up either by train or by bus,” said George Stancil. “They weren’t allowed to bring their own cars. On the weekends or at night, the buses would bring them into town and there wasn’t much to do. They’d start lining up here at noon and we’d fill the place up and another bus would come along to drop more off. They didn’t seem to care what was on.”
Another event which stands out in George’s mind is from 1972.
“The movie ‘Deliverance’ had a shadow premiere here. We played it here at the same time as the world premiere in Atlanta. The only reason we were able to do that was because the author of the book, James Dickie, was a big fan of archery and a big, big fan of Fred Bear. Fred came to the premiere and employees of Bear Archery got in for free. That was a lot of fun.”
George bought the theater from his parents in 1982.
Much has changed just since then.
There used to be a company called the National Screen Service in numerous cities around the country. They handled part supplies for movie theaters. Everything from projection parts to chairs, noted George.
There was also a central exchange for films. This company would handle repairs to the films and send them on to the next theater.
“It’s entirely different now,” George said. “Now we have this code we enter through our computer. And this site downloads the film into a hard drive in our equipment. It even knows at what times the movies are supposed to play at our theater and when its run ends here.”
Today, George’s son, Jordan Stancil, owns the theater and George just helps out.
George remains excited by the fact that the theater’s history parallels that of Grayling for more than a century and enjoys being part of the community.
“There a sense of community here in Grayling — a cohesiveness — which other communities don’t have. We haven’t exploded with growth like other communities, say Gaylord, has. That changes the nature and character of a town. We have growth and we have progress here, but it seems to be on a more manageable level.”
“I think maybe, to a greater extent, older families have stayed here. My great-grandfather came here in 1876. It’s amazing how many families have stayed on. And I know a lot of people my age who are coming back here to retire now.”
In recent years, the Rialto has been renovated and continues to be. George is looking forward to creating a new concession stand in the near future.
“Old downtown, single-screen theaters are a challenge anymore,” says George, “but we’re looking forward to the next 102 years.”
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