Eileen Wolcott, the owner of Vashon Theatre, a one-screen theater set in a community of about 11,000 people, was threatening a guy in the business office of the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera in New York City, home to 8.5 million or so.
“I’m going to get on a plane to New York City, and sit in your reception room from nine to five, every day for two weeks until someone comes to hear me out,” she said. “I just need 10 minutes of somebody’s time to prove that the arts, including opera, are very important on Vashon. Then they’ll understand that we need better access to high-quality opera. I’m actually booking a flight.”
Wolcott’s five-year campaign to prove Vashon deserved to live stream from the Met had been largely ignored. “Nice try,” was the two-word reply to one of the torrents of calls and letters she’d sent. But her sit-in threat did the trick. “OK. We’ll figure it out,” was the Met’s capitulating reply.
Eileen has learned the byzantine rules of the movie business the hard way, by bumping up against people who told her “no.” She has become a clever, creative and at times, a tough player in an industry in which partners don’t necessarily care about her survival. Had she not learned to live by her wits, to become, in essence, a feral businesswoman, willing to try anything, it seems more than likely the Theatre would have failed by now. Year by year, the challenges for owners like Wolcott mount: streaming movies, video games, ever-increasing entertainment and events on Vashon. These obstacles and many more face Eileen every day. And yet, she has risen above them, to succeed by dint of her imagination, creativity and tenacity. But the challenges continue to grow and multiply.
Eileen and her husband, Gordon, a captain in the Seattle Fire Department, wanted to buy the Theatre simply because of their mutual love of movies. From the start, the Wolcotts were determined to improve the quality of their business and building. They painted, replaced all the theater’s seats, improved the bathrooms and lobby. They replaced the old film projector with a slightly less tired, analog system. But Eileen knew, as these enhancements were being made, that an existential threat to the business was looming ever closer. The industry was about to become fully digitized, which meant she’d have to acquire very expensive digital projection and sound systems to keep the business alive.
Amazingly, wonderfully, the community pulled together, contributing more than $100,000 in a fundraising campaign helmed by Green Tech. Equipped with state-of-the-art gear, the Wolcotts went further still, widening the stage to better accommodate live performances. They increased the projection screen size by a third, to a width of 30 gorgeous feet of tack-sharp imagery. It is a huge screen, bested by perhaps three or four screens in our region. Along with vast improvements in sound, thanks in part to local sound experts, the viewing experience at Vashon Theatre is as good or better than anywhere in Seattle or Tacoma.
Eileen has expanded the business model in ways she never anticipated. Opera is streamed in from the Met, plays are streamed in from the National Theater of London. Per her agreement with Green Tech, Wolcott donates the use of the theater for the community every Tuesday night. McMurray students get free use of the theater several Friday nights each year. Eileen hosts cartoon festivals, live performances and occasionally streams live political events. All of these uses are well beyond the bailiwick of a traditional movie theater, but Eileen has made it work in order to expand the theater’s financial base.
“I thought it was really cool to own a theater, I just didn’t know that the cool thing is owning it here on Vashon,” she recently told me. The Wolcotts live in Seattle, but in her heart, Eileen is as Vashon as they come. She believes that Vashon has shaped her views and brought joy and meaning into her life. She told me it is her “life’s work to preserve the movie-going experience on Vashon.” Here, in her adopted community, Eileen fights hard, every day, to do just that.
I’ve always felt that the Theatre is one of those essential island businesses, a puzzle piece that helps make our community whole. We stumble in at the very last minute, stand in line among friends to get a bag of the best popcorn in the world. Then we sit in the dark together, let the movie wash over us, and clap at the end, just as we always have done.
Let’s keep going to the movies so she can keep bringing them to us.
— Todd Pearson, a long-term islander, is a commercial photographer and cinephile.