Eileen Wolcott, who has owned the island’s historic Vashon Theatre for the past 16 years, has something special up her sleeve for family audiences this summer.
On the eve of the theater’s run of “Toy Story 4,” Wolcott sat on a bench in her lobby as her son and employee Jake Wolcott bustled behind the concession stand. She was looking forward to opening the Pixar blockbuster and welcoming wide-eyed children and parents, she said.
“Everybody is going to be talking in line for popcorn, and it’s going to be like a big party here,” she said.
Wolcott hopes to attract even more kids with “Summer Nights,” a series of family classics that will be projecting crisp, new digital versions of the films. Thanks to an assist from Vashon’s John L. Scott Real Estate, Vashon Theatre’s first-ever sponsored series will be free for ages 12 and younger. Tickets for adults will cost only $8 each.
The retro series roars to a start with the music-packed 1973 film, “American Graffiti,” at 5 p.m. Friday, July 5, and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 6. “Gidget,” a 1959 Sandra Dee movie, will play on July 26 and 27. Audiences can dance in the aisles during a sing-a-long screening of “Grease” on Aug. 2 and 3, and relive the madcap, 1980s-era adventures of “Goonies” on Aug. 16 and 17. The megahit that launched an epidemic of aquaphobia in 1975, “Jaws,” will close the series on Aug. 29 and 30.
Wolcott said she has fond memories of all the films, but laughed as she described how her feelings about one of the characters in “Jaws” have evolved.
“I’m sad now for the terrible town mayor, who is just trying to keep the beach going,” she said. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t be alarmed, these are our summer months when we’re trying to make all our money.’ I get that now.”
Wolcott’s joke was her way of acknowledging how much she too depends on the summer months to keep her business thriving.
“I keep having to reinvent this thing, but everything is happening at a faster and faster pace all the time,” she said.
For Wolcott, owning the theater, built in 1946, has included the almost constant tick-tock of upgrading the old facility and its equipment. Major capital costs have included the purchase of a new screen, a new digital sound system, and new seats in half the theater (with the replacement of all the others planned soon). The outside skirting around the building will also need to be replaced soon, she said — an expense that will cost tens of thousands of dollars.
After a series of upgrades to the concession stand, the only original equipment remaining is a meticulously maintained, WWII-era popcorn popper. Obtaining licenses to sell beer and wine, Wolcott said, had helped boost the theater’s bottom line.
It has now been seven years since Vashon Theatre overcame its most daunting challenge — the film industry’s switch to an all-digital format that required the purchase of a new projector costing upwards of $80,000. Island GreenTech, an island nonprofit that assists local businesses, jumped in to raise funds from the community to purchase the projector in 2012. However, due to laws preventing nonprofits from giving money to private business, the funds raised were not given to Wolcott to buy the equipment. GreenTech, on behalf of the community, owns it.
Wolcott agreed to a community-minded arrangement in lieu of paying GreenTech to rent the projector — Vashon Theatre would be made available every Tuesday night, free of course, to local groups who wanted to use it for screenings or educational events. The arrangement, made in 2012, was to last seven years. But now, Wolcott said she has decided to extend it indefinitely because she wants to serve and support the community that has supported her.
“This has brought in a lot of diverse and interesting programs, and helped all our nonprofits raise funds for what they are doing,” said Wolcott.
Wolcott’s generosity comes at a time of accelerated changes to the film industry. Indeed, the threats to Vashon Theatre — and to all of the ever-shrinking number of rural, independently owned single-screen theaters that still exist nationwide — are almost too numerous to name.
These include the king’s ransom that must now be paid to studios for an often mandatory three-week run of newly released movies — usually 65 percent of the box office gross, said Wolcott.
Additionally, movie-going audiences are shrinking, due to the revolutionary changes wrought by Netflix. Compounding the problem, said Wolcott, is the shrinking window of time between theatrical runs of new films and their subsequent release to streaming platforms and DVD.
To overcome these seismic shifts in her industry, Wolcott has stayed nimble, adding programming that includes live-streamed events produced by the Metropolitan Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the National Theatre of London. She also recently started showing a series of exhibitions on film, including “Water Lillies of Monet,” an art tour on film led by Monet scholars of the museums that house the artist’s collections.
Wolcott also occasionally programs concerts in the theater, to the delight of local presenter Debra Heesch. In recent years, Heesch has brought nationally touring artists such as Patterson Hood, Mike Love, the Shook Twins, and Makana to the stage. In December, folk artist John Craigie will appear in the theater at a Heesch-produced show.
“The sound is amazing in the theater and it is super comfortable,” said Heesch. “Eileen is very supportive of what I do and I love working with her.”
In addition to these broader cultural and industry changes, Wolcott said she has also seen a hyper-localized shift — an exploding cultural scene has given islanders an increased choice of entertainment options.
“Here on the island, there is so much going on every single day,” she said, adding that she is currently experiencing a new problem — the parking lot owned by the theater is now often full, but not with the cars of movie-goers. Her patrons, she said, have sometimes equated the full lot with a sold-out movie, and gone home.
But despite the challenges of running the theater, Wolcott said she high hopes for the future of the theater.
“Everybody was telling me that this was a failing thing to go into 16 years ago when I bought the theater,” she said. “But I kind of feel like the reason this still works is that it is a small town thing. People gather and sometimes it feels like the whole audience is friends, and it’s a different experience than going to a theater in town.”
Islander Chris Greenlee, a film aficionado who affectionately calls the single-screened theater “the uniplex,” also cited the community spirit of the movie theater, saying that one of his favorite things about the theater is the tight concession line, and the way that people linger outside the theater, after shows, to discuss the movies.
“It’s always a warm, inviting atmosphere,” he said, noting that he always chooses the “King Kong” concession option at the theater, and then sits in a favorite seat, the location of which he refused to divulge.
Islanders like Greenlee make all the work and uncertainty worthwhile for Wolcott.
“I’ve seen others push toward the precipice and do it well, and that’s sort of the direction I feel I should go,” she said. “Because this is the project of my lifetime, and I don’t want to just say ‘okay, good enough.’ It’s too important to me. I guess what I’m hoping is that it is too important to a bunch of people to have them not stop coming to the movies. They’ve got to come.”