For the first time since March, Vashon Theatre will re-open its doors to in-person audiences on Friday, Nov. 6, in accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent allowance for movie theaters in Phase 2 counties to operate at 25% capacity.
The new Kevin Costner and Diane Lane thriller, “Let Him Go,” will light up the big screen for the reopening. The film is one of a limited number of new releases playing in theaters right now. But Eileen Wolcott, who owns and runs the theater with her family, said she will flex her programming muscles to bring as many different kinds of movies as possible to the theater, including indie films, music docs, holiday favorites and other new releases as they become available.
There will be one public screening every evening, but islanders can also now rent the theater for private screenings of their favorite films, and also buy space on the theater’s marquee — prime real estate for well-wishes to family and friends.
Wolcott also plans to host special movie nights for pass holders — many of whom supported the theater by buying their passes during the theater’s long closure. Those passes can also be used now to purchase marquee space and to arrange private screenings.
“People have really been supportive,” said Wolcott. “They have inspired us with GoFundMe donations and gift card purchases. We wouldn’t have made it through the first six months we were closed without them. Now, at the eight-month mark, I look to them when I’m worried.”
In the months since the theater has been closed because of the pandemic, Wolcott and her family members have stayed more than busy — first pivoting to offer digital access to independent films, and then opening the popular Night Light Drive-In in partnership with Open Space for Arts & Community.
The drive-in, Wolcott said, was a fun and positive experience.
“It kept employees working a little longer, and in a normal year, it could work financially and have some great possibilities,” she said, while also mentioning the downside — the set-up for the drive-in was very expensive. Without sponsors, she said, the endeavor would not have been possible.
During that same time, there were other expenses, as the Wolcotts completed a long-planned renovation of the theater. Audiences on Nov. 6 will find all new flooring and seats, as well as freshly painted walls at the historic movie house.
COVID safety protocols will now make for a more streamlined entry into the theater: all tickets for shows, and an expanded menu of concessions, must now be purchased in advance at vashontheatre.com. Audience members — who are required to sit at least six feet apart from other family groups — will check-in at the concession stand, where they will be given a light-up pager that will be activated when it is their turn to pick up their popcorn, candy and drinks.
“I think that everyone will enjoy not standing in line but instead melting into a comfortable rock-back chair,” said Wolcott. She said concessions will be made and delivered to people in the order they show up to the theater, so the beer will cold and the popcorn will be hot.
She also said that the air inside the theatre will be flushed out with giant exhaust fans and that strict cleaning protocols will be in place. And of course, mask-wearing will be required for everyone, except when they are eating or drinking.
For Wolcott, re-opening in the time of a pandemic is only the most recent daunting challenge to be overcome in her 17-year tenure as the historic theatre’s owner.
The theater was built in 1946, and under the Wolcott family’s watch, there has been the almost constant tick-tock of upgrading the old facility and its equipment. Major capital costs have included the purchase of a new screen and a new digital sound system.
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, helped boost the theater’s bottom line.
It has now been eight years since 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 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 businesses, the funds raised were not given to the Wolcott family to buy the equipment. GreenTech, on behalf of the community, owns it.
At the time, the Wolcotts agreed to a community-minded arrangement in lieu of paying GreenTech to rent the projector — Vashon Theatre became available every Tuesday night to local groups who wanted to use it for screenings or educational events. Up until the pandemic hit, Eileen Wolcott kept the arrangement going because she wanted to serve and support the community that had supported her.
But even 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 — were almost too numerous to name.
These include the king’s ransom that studios demand in exchange for runs of newly released movies — up to 65 percent of the box office gross.
Additionally, movie-going audiences have long been shrinking, due to the changes wrought by Netflix and other platforms. Compounding the problem, in the past few years, studios began to also narrow the window of time between theatrical runs of new films and their subsequent release to streaming platforms.
To overcome these seismic shifts in her industry, Wolcott stayed nimble, adding programming that included live-streamed events produced by the Metropolitan Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the National Theatre of London.
She also collaborated with music promoters including islander Debra Heesch to offer concerts in the theater — something that is, of course, not possible now, as Inslee’s ban on live performance has not budged in recent months. But back in the day, islanders could see such national acts as Patterson Hood, Mike Love, the Shook Twins, and Makana in the theater.
In the summer of 2019, Wolcott told The Beachcomber that despite all these challenges, she still had high hopes for the theater, calling it “the project of my lifetime.”
Then came COVID-19, and Wolcott’s summer foray into running a drive-in and the current moment: her hope that despite a pandemic, her loyal audience — with whom she has formed a strong bond over her many years on the island — will come back to the theater.
Her entire staff is now, out of necessity, a family affair. It includes her son, Jake, and her son-in-law, Chris. Jess Tilden, another employee who has recently returned to a different job, will continue to provide technical support, Wolcott said.
She knows it will be a challenge to get movie-goers back into her newly renovated building, which she said has never looked better.
“We have all lived smaller this year,” she said. “But we are out of time. We need an audience right now.”
And Wolcott is ready to try one more time to keep films rolling at Vashon Theatre.
“We were already looking towards a new direction for the future,” she said. “We are trying to save a small bit of history. With other theaters being turned into storage facilities and warehouses, we will really need to fight to keep something special here.”
For more information and tickets, visit vashontheatre.com.