On Monday, employees of Leading Edge Construction & Design were carefully removing old sheetrock from the walls inside Sunset Theater when they made an unusual find: a perfectly preserved, red leather wallet full of old photos.
Terry Clark, who owns the historic theater, wanted to reunite the wallet with its owner, especially when he realized it was 58 or 59 years old.
“We can’t just throw away a piece of history,” he said.
So he turned to social media. Thanks to a work permit and learners permit still in the wallet, he knew that its owner had been a Lodi 15-year-old in 1961. He posted the girl’s name and photo to a couple of pages on Facebook.
A family friend saw his post on the “You Know You Grew Up in Lodi When” group, and passed the news on. Soon, the grapevine was in full swing.
“I got home at 5 (p.m. Tuesday) and all these phone calls were on my machine,” said Donna Brown of Stockton.
In 1961, she and her family had just moved from Locust Street to Sunset Drive, where they were just around the corner from the Sunset Theater.
The theater was a favorite of Lodi’s younger crowd, Brown’s sister Arlene Haupt said, and Donna and her two sisters often went to see new movies.
Donna Brown had nearly forgotten the day she lost her wallet at the theater.
She had gone to see a movie — she couldn’t remember which one — and visited the restroom, she said. She set her wallet aside while she washed her hands, and when she went to pick it up, it was gone.
There was only one other girl in the restroom while Brown was in there, so she went and confronted her.
“I know you took my wallet because there was nobody else there,” she remembers telling the girl. “And I want my silver dollar!”
Brown remembers the silver dollar, but doesn’t remember the significance of it. Haupt, four years older, said that whenever their uncle visited from North Dakota, he would bring each of the girls a silver dollar, but the women weren’t sure if the one Brown lost had been a gift from him.
Either way, it was not in the wallet when construction worker Kris King found it on Monday.
A friend of Clark’s, Shawn Coles, donated a silver dollar of his own when he heard the story, to replace the one Brown had lost.
On Wednesday, Brown drove up to Lodi to meet with Clark and several of the workers, and her wallet was returned.
“Oh, all my pictures!” she exclaimed, looking through the contents she hadn’t seen in 59 years. The photos showed cousins and friends who have since moved away.
“This was like Facebook in 1961,” Clark joked.
Clark, Leading Edge owner Jeff Anagnos and the construction company’s employees have tried to work out how Brown’s wallet ended up inside an interior wall at the theater. They suspect that whoever took it may have ducked into an employees only area of the theater, located near the restroom, to see what was inside. That room had an open square in the ceiling that provided access into the theater’s unfinished attic.
Once the person who took the wallet had taken what they wanted — including the missing silver dollar — they seem to have thrown it up into that attic, where it slid across the floor and into a gap that dropped down into the wall.
It stayed there, forgotten, until the construction crew began dismantling the Sunset Theater’s interior as part of the property’s renovations.
Brown had never expected to see the wallet again, and had nearly forgotten about it after all this time. She was grateful to have it — and the memories in photo form it contained — returned.
“I’m just amazed,” she said Wednesday. “Overwhelmed.”
The workers have stumbled on a few other finds: a poster for Spudnuts, the potato-flour donut shop that was located in the theater when it opened in 1950; a framed list of rules for the barber shop once located in the building; a 1960 edition of the Lodi News-Sentinel; and several old coins from under the floor where the candy counter was originally located, including a 1937 Buffalo head nickel and a penny from 1944.
But so far, the wallet has been the most interesting.
“The whole crew was really excited about it,” Leading Edge employee Eric Schneider said.
“The only thing better would have been if we found live kittens in the wall,” he said with a laugh.