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Island theater must last long into the future
Vashon Theatre is one of those enduring, treasured Island institutions, without which Vashon just wouldn’t be Vashon. Since 1947, it’s been a great place for us to get out of the rain for a couple of hours, see our neighbors and be mesmerized by those hallucinogenic murals.
And yet it now faces a challenge that must be met, or its very existence may be threatened. To keep its screen from going dark, the theater must entirely change its projection system so that it can screen movies in the new, digital format to which all the major studios — Warner Brothers, Disney and all the rest — have converted. Finding a way to acquire and install this tremendously expensive new equipment is the challenge that owners Eileen Wolcott and her husband Gordon must meet, an expense that would be very difficult to undertake.
From the beginning of their ownership in 2003, the Wolcotts have been committed to improving quality in every phase of their business. Eileen booked newly released, first-run films, instead of the months-old movies that had been standard fare. The jury-rigged old projector was replaced. A new, high quality sound system was installed. The old, Depression-era seats, sticky to the touch, were replaced. Thousands of Jujubes were scraped from the floor. The stucco exterior was rehabilitated and painted. Most importantly, Vashon Theatre started making the best popcorn in the state.
Eileen’s passion for the old theater is palpable. She sees herself as the steward of one of Vashon’s cultural centers and has engaged the community in many ways, hosting concerts, birthday parties and political functions. Her instinct is to continually improve her property, but single-screen theaters have difficulty generating enough income to make many capital improvements, particularly in a town with a limited population. The Wolcotts have plunged ahead anyway, repairing broken systems and buying new gear when it was necessary. They believed that eventually their efforts would pay off if they could provide a viewing experience at Vashon Theatre equal to any movie theater in the city.
In fact, seeing a movie on Vashon is a lot better than seeing a film in town. You can leave your house 10 minutes before the movie starts and be home two hours later. Seeing a film in Seattle or Tacoma requires five hours or so, ferry fare and higher prices for admission and treats. At Vashon Theatre, you’ll have the pleasure of chatting about the film with your friends and neighbors as you walk out.
You probably know by now that GreenTech, a Vashon nonprofit, approached Eileen, offering to help her find a solution when members heard rumblings of the challenges she faced. GreenTech’s mission is to act as a catalyst for local businesses, helping them assess their situation and providing advice to help them succeed. Board members felt that without the intervention of GreenTech, the theater would be unable to acquire the equipment needed to survive. The GreenTech board proposed conducting a fundraiser to buy the equipment for Vashon Theatre with the proceeds. The community will own the equipment, through GreenTech, and it will be leased to Vashon Theatre for a nominal yearly fee. This unusual partnership of for-profit and non-profit businesses is necessary, and on Vashon, it makes sense.
With Eileen’s blessing and cooperation, GreenTech has launched an effort to raise $100,000 to purchase and install the projection equipment in Vashon Theatre and ensure its future viability. The projector alone costs nearly $60,000, and because many other theater owners find themselves in a similar position, the projectors are much in demand. The supplier requires a 50 percent deposit to enter the queue to buy the gear, and, unless we order very soon, Vashon Theatre may indeed go dark for a time. The first phase of GreenTech’s fundraising goal is to raise $30,000 in four weeks, so that Eileen’s order will be at the top of the list. For this, they will need the help of everyone on Vashon who loves our theater.
If we do nothing to help Eileen, it’s possible we will not have a movie theater on Vashon Island. That would be an unacceptable outcome in my world, and I suspect, and hope, in the worlds of many other Vashon residents.
Eileen Wolcott actually owns Vashon Theatre, but it is our theater — it belongs to everyone on Vashon. We must do whatever is necessary to ensure that this essential, irreplaceable Island business is here long into the future.
— Todd Pearson is a professional photographer and longtime Islander who loves movies.