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Growing up in Leelenau County, the movies always served as an escape for Leann Owen. Heading into Traverse City to see a movie at the State Theatre, or into Honor to catch a flick at the drive in, is some of her most cherished childhood memories.

Her love affair for movies has only grown in the past 18 years as she has worked her way from part-time employee at the Eaton Theatre in downtown Charlotte, to manager, and now owner.

Owen and her partner Tim Conley closed on the purchase of the Eaton Theatre on Friday, Oct. 5, setting in motion a number of plans Owen has for an enhanced community experience.

“I’ve had 18 years to think about what I could do with this place,” Owen said.

She said her first plan is to open the north wall of the lobby with two arched doorways that will lead to a classic 1980s-style arcade. The room located on the south end of the lobby will then transition to a virtual reality gaming room. Owen said she plans to have the gaming rooms open by Thanksgiving.

“At that point we can extend our hours and be a place kids can come after school,” Owen said. “It will be a place for people to hang out … not just teens, but families too. We’ll then add afternoon show times during the week.”

Continuing to be an affordable place for families to enjoy time together is a top priority. Owen has created a lot of community relationships through the theatre over the years. Her children spent countless hours with her there, one of the reasons she stayed on as manager long as she did.

“We’re here because we love it and we can sustain the cost of staying open,” Owen said. “We don’t need to make a lot of money. I want it to always be affordable to this community.”

In addition to being affordable, Owen plans to increase the theatre’s community involvement, building on the free family movies she instituted a number of years ago. Coming up Oct. 27 and 28, the Eaton Theatre gets in the Halloween spirit by offering a free showing of Hocus Pocus. Owen said the announcement of the event has already generated interest from more than 1,200 people, by far the theatre’s biggest event. She plans to show Wreck it Ralph during Small Business Saturday, coinciding with the release of Wreck it Ralph 2.

Her plans for the theatre are big, and will take time to complete. In addition to the new arcade, Owen said she plans to move the ticket booth back to the front entrance, and expand the lobby area to restore a classic 1940s or 50s feel. She also has plans to restore the marquee that was removed last year, though that project comes with a big price tag.

“People are going to see a lot of changes,” Owen said. “But, we have to take them one step at a time.”

The planned improvements are on top of renovations that have taken place in the last several years, which include a new roof, new furnaces, new lobby cooling system, ceiling fans in the main theatre that help circulate heat, digital projectors and new screens, reupholstered seats, and an updated sound system in each booth.

“A lot of what has been done recently isn’t that noticeable to customers,” Owen said. “There have been a lot of little improvements along the way, but I’m excited for what’s to come.”

Eaton Theatre, located at 235 S. Cochran Avenue in downtown Charlotte, is a first run movie theatre with a 500-seat lower theatre, and 150-seat second-floor theatre. For show times, find their weekly ad in The County Journal, and follow Eaton Theatre on Facebook.