Monday, September 24, 2012

9.24.12 Bee-otch of the Day: The Dawson family

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Names: Leonard and Elaine Dawson
Ages: 70, 69
Occupations: movie theatre owners
Last Seen: Bellaire, MI
Bee-otched For: running, but being unable to hide

Here in Grand Rapids, we have it lucky.

We have two big theatre chains when it comes to movies. The biggest of the two is the AMC Star Theatre on Alpine, which has 18 screens. Star Theatres used to be a Michigan chain until they were sold to Loews/Sony some years ago. Of course, AMC was once owned by Bain Capitol - Willard Romney's company - but is now owned by the Chinese.

Thankfully, there's still four Celebration! Cinemas here in Grand Rapids, all owned by the Loeks family. Founder Jack Loeks started his first cinema in 1944, the Midtown, which grew to one of Michigan's largest cinema chains with locations in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Muskegon and Mt. Pleasant. Loeks was a true trailblazer in cinema operation, creating some of the first drive-ins, multiplexes and even the first megaplex in 1988 when he expanded his Studio 28 to 20 screens. Today, Loeks Theatres are now owned by his son John.

However, being from notthern Michigan, it's great that there's still a local flavor when it comes to going to the movies. But still, I've never met Mr. Loeks in my life, and I probably will not. Growing up near Torch Lake, the closest cinema to me was the Elk Rapids Cinema in Elk Rapids, which was and still is owned by Joseph W. Yuchasz. If you ever arrived at the Cinema 30 minutes before the show, Joe would end up talking you to death. He's always been people oriented and it's one reason why after 40 years of Cinema ownership, he's still got it.

In northern Michigan, the only major chains are Carmike - who own both cineplexes in Traverse City - and Goodrich, who own Cadillac's sole theatre. The rest are family-owned, like Bob Bahle's Bay in Suttons Bay and the group who own the newly-refurbished Garden in Frankfort.

Even with the threat of the major studios abandoning 35 mm film production by next years' end and the ultra-high cost of going digital, I'd imagine that Joe, Bob and the Garden's many owners are doing just fine. There are exceptions, such as Bill Supernaw, who lost his Cinema III in Charlevoix last year after he defaulted on the cinema's mortgage. The other owner worth mentioning is Harry Clark, the owner of the Cherry Bowl Drive-in in Honor. Earlier this year, the owner of the family-friendly outdoor venue (nothing above a PG-13 is shown there) almost lost his life when a tree fell on him while clearing out branches from a snowstorm. Thankfully, his family stepped in and took over the theatre's operations while he was recuperating. Even Michael Moore stepped in, raising $3,000 to help the Clarks during a showing at his non-profit State Theatre in Traverse City by passing a collection plate around.

Up until last week, the biggest local chain of northern Michigan theatres were owned by the Dawson family of Bellaire. They own the Bellaire Theatre in Bellaire, The Kingston in Cheboygan, the Gaylord Cinema West in Gaylord, the Petoskey Cinema in Petoskey and the Courtyard in Mackinaw City. For many years, I had the Dawsons in very high regard. I even met them at their flagship in Bellaire one afternoon, running the ticket and refreshment counters. It was 11 years ago and the film was Pearl Harbor. It was I think a few weeks after I got out of tech school and we had a nice chat about the movie biz and the fact that they were considering giving the Bellaire a second screen (and it became reality a few years later). I loved hearing the story about how they built their empire; in the late 70's, Len got injured on the job and successfully sued his employer. He used the money to buy the original Bellaire Theatre, built in the early 1940's.

However, in 1988, a fire from a building next door spread to the Bellaire, burning it to the ground. Just six months later, the new Bellaire Theatre was built, complete with big city luxuries such as rocking chair seats and digital stereo sound. Eventually, the Dawsons purchased other cinemas in Gaylord, Petoskey and Cheboygan, expanding them, and eventually with the Gaylord and Petoskey cinemas, replacing them with newer theatres complete with more screens and stadium seating.

But last week, people got to see a side of the Dawsons they didn't want to see: the fact that they've been lying to the government for years. A former manager at the Dawson's theatres revealed that they were milking their numbers. When attendance was up, they claimed it was down, WAY down. That way, they could use the money to buy houses, boats, cars, you name it. The manager had six years' worth of numbers that he presented to the IRS. Last week, it was announced that Elaine Dawson would plead guilty to tax evasion. So far, the IRS only has charged Dawson for one years' worth of tax fraud for 2006. But, if Dawson is charged for more years, this could mean that she'll be seeing steel for a long, long time.

The Dawsons' children are also involved in the family business, and they have had their hands slapped by the IRS, too. If they can come up with six years' worth of 1040s, they'll be scot-free.

At this point, the future of Bellaire Theatres is up in the air thanks to the Dawson's mismanagement. I thought these people knew better. Yes, owning big, comfy houses is one thing, especially in a lousy economy in the 2000's, but dammit, PAY YOUR TAXES! If a rich person doesn't pay taxes, should I skip paying them, too? The law's the law: you don't pay taxes, you go to jail. End of story.

But hey! Maybe if those theatres shut down, Mr. Moore might show some interest....

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