Just before Christmas, the Vashon Theatre hosted its annual showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Before the movie began, Vashon Theatre owner Eileen Wolcott took to the microphone, telling the crowd it was like a homecoming, seeing so many people in the audience who had helped the theater the last few years. And she just wanted to say thank you.
Wolcott’s introduction was very appropriate for “A Wonderful Life” — a film that is about the difference one person can make to a community. After all, Wolcott, who took on the challenging task of running a small local theater almost 20 years ago, has left an indelible imprint on Vashon.
And regardless of an array of historic challenges facing theaters around the country, the small little Vashon Theatre has remained, fighting the growing power of chain movie theaters, the allure of streaming from home and, let’s not forget, a pandemic.
The theater still stands – still funky with its murals on the walls, still cozy and a living monument to the entire hard-working Wolcott family. King County has now honored the theater with the John D. Spellman Award for Historic Preservation. The award is part of the Historic Preservation Program, which identifies and protects the county’s historic resources. As part of the honor, the theater will be featured in videos and receive some well-deserved publicity.
The honor is nicely-timed for the theater, as it struggles along with theaters nationwide. It has not been an easy period, even for the dedicated Wolcott, as she sells tickets, gives popcorn or puts up the marquee. She is supported by her entire hardworking family in the labor of love.
“We made it through the first few months with a small grant and a huge percentage of the community buying gift cards,” Wolcott said. “The fantastic community circled the wagons around us. For us, it was all about reducing costs and getting things done.”
“By October of 2020, no money was coming in,” she said. “No matter how frugal you are, a big commercial building is expensive, every month. I started to think that maybe we wouldn’t make it. But we got creative again. We began renting out the marquee, hosting private parties and making take-out popcorn. Several families bought take-out from us every week.”
The theater found ways to survive by showing old movies at the drive-in at the Open Space.
“When Genevieve Metzger sent me a picture of her kids sitting at home watching a movie with their Mighty Mouses in front of them, it kept me going. There were small victories and inspirations like that, every month,” Wolcott said.
Pre-pandemic, Vashon Theatre overcame its most daunting, pre-COVID challenge — the film industry’s switch to an all-digital format that required the purchase of a new projector costing $80,000. Island GreenTech, an island nonprofit that assists local businesses, jumped in to raise more than $80,000 from the community to purchase the projector in 2012.
And long before COVID-19 came along, the threats to Vashon Theatre — and to all of the ever-shrinking number of rural, independently owned single-screen theaters that still exist nationwide — included the king’s ransom that studios demand in exchange for runs of newly released movies — up to 65 percent of the box office gross. Windows of times between theatrical and digital distribution have also decreased and too often disappeared in recent years.
Islander Todd Pearson set up a GoFundMe for the theater last year, which is still active and a place where appreciation for the Wolcott families is on display on a weekly basis.
Pearson’s view is that the entire community has a stake in the survival of the theater.
“It is very clear that the movie-going public on Vashon understands the struggles of Vashon Theatre, and the great effort made to preserve this treasured community asset,” he said. “When islanders think of the theater, they think of it as “our” theater. Yes, the Wolcott family owns it, but we all feel a sense of co-ownership. Through her great and relentless stewardship, Eileen is preserving a fabulous piece of what makes Vashon ‘Vashon.’
Among the improvements Wolcott has made to the theater are re-roofing, repainting, removing old paint from the floor and repainting it, re-working the stage, replacing the seats, installing new lights, improving the screen and image quality and much more.
As more and more people stream movies at home, the question remains: what makes a movie theater experience different? Wolcott has some ideas.
“Big screen movies are not big-screen movies at home,” she said. “They must be seen and heard at the theatre. A movie at my house is just a TV show … I stop the movie to load the laundry, miss important details when my phone buzzes and ultimately forget why I was watching. At the theater, you immerse yourself in the experience — you run into friends, hear the laughter of children, gasp together and debate the plot points on the way out. It’s magic.”
Islanders have plenty of memories at the theater – viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, singing Christmas carols, attending concerts or birthday parties. And it’s up to islanders to decide how much it matters to keep the theater going. Maybe an entire community can work to support the beloved movie house, part of its core for so many years.
For more information and tickets, visit vashontheatre.com. Islanders can donate to the theater today at gofund.me/138fbe90.
Lauri Hennessey contributes frequently to The Beachcomber. She is the executive director of League of Education Voters.