The secrets of Springfield’s new 6-story outdoor mural

Regent Theatre Mural

Click on image to view Tim Bucey's pics of the mural

The mural is finished – and what a great work of art

Springfield recently became the fortunate recipient of a fantastic work of outdoor art, a 6-story, 6000 square foot mural on the back of the Regent Theater in downtown right in front of the main entrance to the Courtyard by Marriott.  Painted by Yellow Springs native Jason Morgan, who after a stint in the military and many moons at a graphic arts company discovered his gift for portraits and began painting…and painting big.  Although the Regent Mural is his largest, it’s not his first, and his work on 4-5 other murals, including work in Wilmington and on the YSI building in Yellow Springs, provided a good enough resume to catch the attention of the Mural Committee.  The Committee raised private funds to get the mural painted and plans on it only being the first…great news for Springfield.

Who is Gus Sun?

The mural, first and foremost, pays tribute to Gustave (Gus) Ferdinand Sun, who was born in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio (made me like him immediately) and rose to fame as the premier small town vaudeville king in the early 1900s.  For those not familiar with vaudeville, it was a live, variety act performance entertainment held in theaters in the late 1800s until about 1930, when most theaters were wired for sound (motion picture talkies were introduced in 1926).  Movies took over the entertainment industry both in terms of popularity and profit.

Prior to that, vaudeville was a main form of people’s entertainment.  What Gus Sun did was make it possible for the art form to be affordable (shows in NY charged a $1, whereas a Gus Sun show never charged over 25 cents) and available in smaller rural towns.  Sun started off in 1889 as a juggler, eventually performing in a Sun family circus, which he sold out of and started his own touring act, the Gus Sun Rising Minstrels in 1896.  When he came across “dime vaudeville”  in Sacramento, California right after the turn of the century, he decided to open the first “family theaters” in the country (the Orpheum) in Springfield, Ohio in 1904. 

Sun’s rise to rule the common vaudeville circuit in the US

The next year he opened another and by 1907 he had 10 theaters.  The problem was, he was running out of acts to fill them.  So, he started a booking company, and when other small Midwest theater operators heard about it, they signed on, taking it to 100 theaters immediately.  At its peak, the Gus Sun Booking Agency was booking a thousand acts into 300 theaters from coast to coast.  The big boys in New York and Chicago tried to crush him, but they couldn’t compete with his cost, his logistics (he invented the half-week or “split week” concept, which let acts rotate to different venues to keep the content fresh), and the quality of his acts (many great acts like Bob Hope and Groucho Marx got their start with Sun because of his reach and the promise of steady work.)

The canvas – the Regent Theater

The mural is painted on the Regent Theater, a 1300 seat theater located at 117 S. Limestone.  Opened by Sun in 1920, it was base of operation, and his offices were located on the second floor.  The Regent Theatre was designed by renowned Detroit architect C. Howard Crane, who is best known for his design of some 250 theaters in cities  all over North America.  For those familiar with Columbus, you might recognize his art deco work on the LeVeque Tower, which in 1927 was at the time of its construction, the tallest building between New York and Chicago. 

For those who don’t dally in art on a daily basis, Art Deco was a popular international art design movement from 1925 until the 1940s, and it is an opulent, lavish, rich, festive and uses materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer and inlaid wood.   

In 1930, it was bought by a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, then owned outright by Warner Brothers by 1940.  The Chakeres brothers, who are also prominent on the mural, ran the oldest independent movie exhibitor in Ohio and Kentucky and one of the oldest movie theatre chain companies in the country (currently they own and manage 70 screens at 19 sites).  The Chakeres operated the Regent Theatre from the 1950s to 1992, when it closed.  Thankfully, local residents recently helped repair the roof to save this jewel, and the mural is viewed as a next step to draw attention to its value and potential future contribution to the downtown.

>> Springfield News-Sun article (5/5/2008) – just commissioned

>> Tim Bucey’s great pics of mural

>> Springfield Live page on mural

>> Cinema Treasures

>> Cindy Funk’s photo of artist at time of completion

>> Bob Hope’s start 1924 with Gus Sun

>> History of the Sun family

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2 Responses

  1. I grew up in Springfield and graduated from North High in 1964. I saw many a movie at the Regent, State, Majestic, and Liberty theaters. I am please the Regent still exists. Can you tell me the dimensions of the major screen (the only screen when I lived there.

  2. I don’t have that info right now. I’ll see if I can find out anything.

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