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The many faces of the Wagon Wheel

The State Theatre occupied the old Wagon Wheel building, 102 S. Broadway, in the 1940s and 1950s. (click for larger version)

The State Theatre occupied the old Wagon Wheel building, 102 S. Broadway, in the 1940s and 1950s. (click for larger version)
January 15, 2014 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

Paul Revere and the Raiders had just had their first national hit with "Stepping Out," The Who was gaining momentum, and Freddy Cannon rehearsed with local Lake Orion bands.

Backtrack a few more decades and Lassie played on the big screen, "Gone with the Wind" was a favorite film, and popcorn cost 25 cents.

The ex-building at 102 S. Broadway holds a soft spot in many Lake Orion natives' hearts, changing with them from generation to generation.

But the Wagon Wheel took its last breath midday on Tuesday, January 7, when a demolisher carefully clawed "102 S. Broadway" from the brick storefront. The demolition was necessary after the west side of the building collapsed during a snow storm on January 5.

On January 7, during the demolition, the north wall was knocked down, dragging the roof down like an exhale of dusty memories frozen in the air.

As locals whipped out their phones and recorded the deconstruction, later asking on Facebook, what will become of the iconic location, the once State Theatre, the old hardware store, the question lingered like a memory.

Owner Dia Zaraga said he had not expected it to end like this.

"The big concern with everyone is that it was gone forever," Zaraga said.

But, the chance for a redo is very good.

"Hopefully we will be able to rebuild it and make it even better," he said. "When we bought the building that was the plan. As of right now, there's a very big chance it might be a bar again."  

Keeping in mind of what would best fit the downtown, Zaraga stamped out a rumor buzzing around the community.

"Honestly we have no idea what will happen, what kind of building or if it's a bar for sure, but it's not going to be a parking lot. With the Whiskey's being a parking lot, that will make it better for all the buildings downtown including the Wagon Wheel, so that was always the game plan," he said.

The two taverns

Lake Orion American Legion member Steve Hauxwell remembers the original Wagon Wheel Tavern, "the place my dad went to, and gave me a one-dollar-bill to get a malt or a coke," he said, noting the delicious food in the 70s.

"I knew the Wagon Wheel just from watching the older generation go in because I lived right there in town. It was pretty cool because it was really dingy looking when you walked by, you were like, 'oh what's in there,'" he said.

Other American Legion members agree.

"It was just a great place to go. We had some major shuffleboard tournaments in there. Lots of money won and lost," member Jack Cooksey piped in. "I won a couple state championships playing shuffleboard there. I used to be one of the best."

The original tavern, opened by George Wright in the 1920s, was first located at 27 S. Broadway, the building currently operating as Lennon Photo. It moved down the street to 102 S. Broadway after a fire in the late 1970s, re-opening in 1981 in the old hardware store known in its time as Savard & Son True Value Hardware.

"The only thing that was saved was the shuffleboard table," Hauxwell said, "So people played for years on this historical shuffle board table," which was dragged out of the burning building and brought to the new location.

Larry Kelly and Leroy Bayes owned the Wagon Wheel when it boomed with acoustics and bass, from 1977 until 2000, after dwindling to more respectable measures in the 1990s.

"Back in the day when it had Brass Ring Productions, they brought in great bands, and they would advertise on the radio. You saw how small that [building] was. You advertise a really popular, metro-Detroit band, on a Friday night in the summertime, you might have 1,000 people come up because they have nothing to do and come to that bar," Lake Orion Police Chief Jerry Narsh said

If the Wagon Wheel was too crowded, everyone would go to Marty's Club Royal. Or The Stables. Or the Polish Princess.

"That was the music night life in Lake Orion for many, many years, and it was fun, it was cool. When I came on as a young officer I used to joke that you had to be a golden-glove boxer to be a Lake Orion cop on the weekends," Narsh said, remembering his first arrest of a drunk man almost a foot taller than him.

The Hardware Store

When  the Wagon Wheel took over 102 S. Broadway that building had already worn a number of different hats since the early 1900s.

From approximately 1968 to 1978, Joe Savard was in charge.

Savard & Son True Value Hardware was also originally located across the street where Lucky's Natural Foods is today, and moved to 102 S. Broadway to expand.

"We opened up the sides of the building and made it one floor, all on area, and added the mansard roof, wood siding, and put in show windows in the front because it had been a theatre and youth center," Savard said.

When Savard purchased the building it still had the State Theatre marquee in front, which he tore down in 1969 to make way for the show windows. "It was just the normal, day to day stuff around here," Savard said of his store.

Savard was also a fireman, and could hear when the sirens went off downtown on top of the old fire station.

"I would jump up and run up the middle of Broadway and run into the station and my wife happened to be dispatching at the time," Savard said.

She would write down the address on a multi-carbon paper slip, stick it into a hollowed-out wooden ball, and drop it into a drainpipe that emptied into the fire level where the trucks and volunteers waited for the information.

When Savard sold his business he said it was traumatic. He was having a 'going out of business sale,' getting ready to leave town, when a businessman interested in the store agreed to purchase it. Savard stopped his sale, and waited for the man the next day. But he didn't show up for another five weeks after finally scrounging up the money.

Youth Center and State Theatre

Before the hardware store and for just a couple years in the early 1960s, 102 S. Broadway housed the Lake Orion Youth Center.

The Lake Orion Schools board of directors along with a half-dozen ladies from town overlooked the center, which set the stage for teen dances: "a place where kids could go, and keep them off the street kind of thing," local musician Jerry Zubal recalled. The Youth Center also hosted gun safety classes and dance classes.

Zubal got a little rock 'n' roll band together in the 60s called Bobby and the Quintels that played for high school dances everywhere from Rochester, Waterford, to Pontiac, and of course in downtown Lake Orion.

The Quintels opened for bands that were making hit records in the 1960s, including Paul Revere and the Raiders.

"Somebody told us their [The Raiders] equipment wasn't here" and asked if they could use ours. "You're a 15-year-old kid, and a rock star asks if he can use your guitar. Part of you says 'no, I don't want him banging on my guitar', but the other part says 'yeah, he's a rock star,'" Zubal remembered.

His manager, Jim Bernowski, told the Quintels they had one afternoon to learn Freddie Cannon's music before playing with him later that night. "What, we are rehearsing for Freddy Cannon? That afternoon we rehearsed like crazy, and that night we played the songs, and never played them again," Zubal said. "That's when it was happening."

"It was my generation."

Before the youth center, 102 S. Broadway was the State Theatre, the days of Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers, the Lone Ranger, Gabby Hayes and of course Lassie.

Almost life-time LO resident Sharon Leach remembers sharing 25 cent popcorn on Saturday afternoons, the news reel of world-wide events along with the cartoon, Porky Pig or Popeye the Sailor Man, before the show started.

Her husband, Ed Leach, lived at 3355 Indianwood Rd., and was almost too scared to ride his bike home after watching The Thing.

"He thought for sure the Thing was going to jump out and grab him," Leach said in a facebook message. "The good old days."

Local historian for the Orion Historical Society chapter Mike Sweeney said the State Theater was very active. "As kids we looked forward going to the Saturday afternoon matinees for 12 cents, it was a halfway decent movie theatre. It was the only one in town, that's where we went," Sweeney said.

Days of the Dealership

Sweeney and a team of historians researched the building a little over a decade ago when they established the downtown historic area. He put his findings in a leather-bound book, and contributed images to another book Images of America: Lake Orion. Charlie Howarth originally built the building in 1913 for his farm implement factory, close to the depot in order to easily ship his machinery. Howarth opened a Ford automobile dealership in 1915, and is said to have contracted to sell 75 new Ford cars during the year. The Ford dealership reigned until 1936, and in 1938 Richard Ingram, who leased the building for five years, converted it to the State Theatre for around $8,000. With a seat capacity of 400, the flooring was lowered to meet the 15-foot stage and screen.

"You drive by it every day for 75 or 80 years and all of a sudden it's gone, I would miss it as much as anyone," Sweeney said.

Oh the possibilities

Owner of the site, Zaraga had tried to remodel the Wagon Wheel when he purchased it from Larry Kelly in 2010, with plans for structural repairs to the walls, flooring and roof.

"A thing that came up is they [the fire chief] wanted us to put in a fire suppression system and to pay for all the hookup fees," Zaraga said. "It was really expensive because it had to come from the back of the building, and we didn't know if we needed it or not because it depended on what type of business was going in there. It's costly enough to remodel," he said.

At that time the streetscape was being planned, and the village did not want Zaraga to rip up sidewalk after it had just been redone for a suppression system. So both parties agreed to wait.

And although the walls eventually fell, it was DJ's from metro Detroit such as Lee Allen, rock shows like "Where the Action Is," "necking" in the movie theatre, the shuffleboard queens, the baton and tap-dancing lessons, bike rides in the night, memories of the old hardware store and weekly crowd control that formed a culture downtown that will live on despite the changes to come. 

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