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Elk Rapids Remembers Longtime Movie Theater Owner

Elk Rapids is saying farewell to a longtime member of the community. From the Rotary Club and the Village Hall, to the classroom and the local church, “Movie Theatre Joe” leaves quite a legacy.

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Lifelong friend Norman Veliquette says, “it’s hard to not think of Joe and just about anything that goes on in Elk Rapids.”

Joe Yuchasz certainly left his mark in Elk Rapids, from one end of town to the next.

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His sister Catherine Allegrina still lives in the family home where she and Joe grew up. She says the response to Joe’s passing earlier in January has been touching.

“Oh, it’s been really heartwarming. He loved Elk Rapids and he gave it his whole heart. I mean, he was involved in in Rotary and he was the treasurer for the AMVETS for ten years, I think. And we grew up in a Rotary family. Dad was a Rotarian, so we all worked on the projects when the harbor was new and just all kinds of things,” she says.

Veliquette knew Joe from grammar school.

“I rode the school bus with Joe. He was two years ahead of me in school. I was impressed with Joe from my first acquaintance that he was so conversant about everything,” Veliquette says. “He could just talk about any subject. And it didn’t surprise me that he went on to become a naval officer and a graduate of Notre Dame, and a jack of all trades.”

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Those trades included playing the organ at Sacred Heart Church. Catherine says “he played the organ at church from the time he was 18 until just a few years ago. He was an altar server. He served on the committee that’s planning (a) new church.”

“The community and the church were the two things that he just he was very active in both areas. He worked for the village, also for the township. He was the Village President and he also was on the DDA and Michigan Municipal League.” Catherine says Joe was Village President for nearly 20 years.

While he’s perhaps best known on a wide scale as the man who owned the Elk Rapids Cinema, she says he didn’t start out wanting to run the theater. “When he moved back to Elk Rapids after the Navy, he wanted to start a radio station, but there wasn’t a frequency available. And a lot of things just happened. You know, it’s like teaching. He didn’t plan to be a teacher. He didn’t study to be a teacher. But, I don’t know who, but someone from Bellaire came and said, ‘Joe, will you teach?’ And he had the qualifications and he just had to go back and take classes. He taught for ten years. And the same thing with the theater. Mr. Coddington walked in the door of his store and said, Joe, I want to sell you my theater.”

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Catherine says Joe taught in Bellaire for ten years, then continued in the classroom as a substitute teacher in Elk Rapids. “He touched so many people. He was a substitute teacher. He cared a lot about children and a lot of them would come and just to visit with him at the theater. They knew that he was one adult that wasn’t going to criticize them, that was going to just listen and be their friend.”

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That’s where he recruited many students to come to work for him at the Elk Rapids Cinema. “He loved it. He spent every summer working with a different person each summer, the plumber, one year, the electrician, another, so he could fix things at the theater. And if he could, it a book was always the answer. He’d look it up, buy a book, study it, do it. And it was. He just did everything. It was it was really his life.”

“I think the most common memory that people will have is that he owned the theater and that he kept the theater open when most theaters in most small towns were failing and closing. And Joe worked hard,” Veliquette says. “And I think he did an excellent job of selecting the entertainment for Elk Rapids.”

It’s a rare sight to see the “closed” sign on the marquee at this theater. Joe ran it 365 days a year.

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“He loved film. He really did. He loved the medium and also he loved again, you go back to the people, you know, he was open 365 days a year. And, you know, my kids knew when they were old enough that Christmas after Christmas dinner, you’d go to the theater and sell tickets for Uncle Joe and he always said, you know, if somebody doesn’t have family and have nowhere to have nowhere to go, the theaters going to be open,” Catherine says.

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Joe was never married and had no kids, now his extended family will take on the task of deciding the theater’s future. “The family’s just regrouping because, of course, we haven’t run it. You know, right now we’re making phone calls and trying to figure out, you know, where to send the check for the last movie because we have not done it before. And so it’ll be closed while the family learns how to run it. Hopefully in the spring we’ll be able to open it back up.”

“Joe was my best friend my whole life. He was a good big brother. He was always there for me. So it’s. It won’t be easy. We’ll miss him,” she says.

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