Wenatchee drive-in rides into the sunset
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Drive-in manager hates sad endings
By Mike Irwin
World staff writer
WENATCHEE — Ceann Lee gets downright poetic when he describes the drive-in theater experience.
"A beautiful sunset, kids laughing, a full moon moving across the night sky and, on top of all that, two good movies,” said the 28-year-old manager of the Vue Dale Drive-In. “What could be better?”
Lee, drive-in manager for the past four years, understands all the economic reasons for closing the 57-year-old Wenatchee landmark at the end of this season, but remains disheartened by the news.
“This is a wonderful place for families and friends,” he said. “It’s a safe place where parents can relax and let their kids run and play. It’s going to be missed, that’s for sure.”
It’s such a unique experience, said Lee, that at least six families from Canada have become regular customers, traveling the 120 miles from the border to give their kids “a taste of nostalgia for simpler times.”
Lee joined Sun Basin Theatres, the company that owns the drive-in, back in 2004. Since then, he’s worked all the regular movie theater jobs — taking tickets, serving popcorn, running the projector.
But as the guy in charge of the Vue Dale, he’s also been called upon to do the grunt work — change lightbulbs, haul out the garbage, scrub the restrooms. “I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into this place, but it’s been worth it.”
Lee’s seven employees have formed a tight-knit “family,” he said, who help each other with difficult tasks and socialize outside of work. “I’m amazed sometimes at the close friendships that have formed here.”
The Vue Dale’s exact closing date hasn’t yet been determined, the manger said. After Labor Day, the theater moves to a weekends-only schedule and will likely stay open through September, maybe even into October.
“But I’m keeping my fingers crossed to keep it open until Halloween,” Lee said. “It’d be fun to show some scary movies and have a few Halloween festivities.” That depends, of course, on nighttime temperatures and arrival of the first snowfall.
“The one sure thing is that this place will be missed,” Lee said. “It’s a piece of history that’s made a lot of memories for a lot of people.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179
The Magnificent Seven
Like payphones and bookstores, the number of drive-in theaters across the state and nation is in steady decline.In Washington, more than 80 outdoor theaters once attracted drive-in movie fans and families. But in the last two decades that number has dwindled to seven.
Here’s where to find the state’s last drive-in theaters:
Vue Dale Drive-In
1546 S. Wenatchee Ave., Wenatchee
Two screens, 650-car capacity, sound through FM radio, May to September.
Auto Vue Drive-In
444 Auto Vue Road, Colville
One screen, 220-car capacity, sound through AM/FM radio, May to September.
Valley 6 Drive-In
401 49th St. N.E., Auburn
Six screens, 3,000-car capacity, sound through AM radio, March to October.
Blue Fox Drive-In
1403 N. Monroe Landing Road, Oak Harbor
One screen, 175-car capacity, sound through AM/FM radio, year-round.
Rodeo Triplex Drive-In
7369 State Highway 3 SW, Port Orchard
Three screens, 600-car capacity, sound through FM radio, season April to October.
Wheel In Motor Movie
210 Theatre Road, Port Townsend
One screen, 154-car capacity, sound through FM radio, April to August.
182 S.E. Brewer Road, Shelton
One screen, 333-car capacity, sound through AM radio and speakers, April to September.
The ol' days
North Central Washington had a hefty handful of drive-in theaters through the decades. Here’s a sampling of what once existed:
• Mountain View Drive-In, Cashmere-Dryden: one screen, 400-car capacity.
• Skyline Drive-In, Moses Lake: one screen, 450-car capacity.
• Sky Vu Drive-In, Omak: one screen, 250-car capacity.
• Valley Drive-In, Omak: one screen, car capacity unavailable.
• Pow Wow Drive-In, Oroville: one screen, 490-car capacity.
• Sunset Drive-In, Othello: one screen, 300-car capacity.
• Park In Drive-In, Soap Lake: one screen, 275-car capacity.
• Autovue Drive-In, Wenatchee: one screen, 250-car capacity.
WENATCHEE — Young mom Jo Hernandez will miss the Vue Dale Drive-In when it closes for good at the end of this season.
She’ll miss the cheap admission price, the healthy snacks brought from home and the chance to work on her laptop while the kids watch the flicks.
At least once a month in summer, the 27-year-old East Wenatchee woman herds a passel of friends and kids into her SUV to take in a movie under the stars. The carload of three adults and four tykes costs only $19 for that night’s kid-friendly double feature.
“It’s cheap, it’s easy and I get tons of work done,” she said, sitting in the driver’s seat, laptop braced on the steering wheel, Starbucks latté in a nearby cupholder. The computer screen glowed with a spreadsheet for her home-based business.
She’d parked the SUV backward so kids in rear-facing seats could see the screen through the upraised tailgate. Two friends lounged in lawn chairs and ate homemade chips and salsa from an ice chest chock-full of goodies.
Hernandez admitted her experience with drive-in theaters only stretched back three years. “But if you ask me, this is the way to see a movie,” she said. “I know there’s nothing to do about it closing — that’s progress, I guess — but it’s a shame all this is going away.”
The 57-year-old Vue Dale Drive-In, one of only seven drive-in movie theaters left in the state, will go dark due to a variety of factors, said Bryan Cook, general manager of Sun Basin Theatres, the movie company that owns the Vue Dale and indoor theaters in downtown Wenatchee, East Wenatchee and other locations around the state.
The two-screen, 650-car outdoor facility — a relic from the 1950s age of motoring — has become a victim of advancing technology, dramatic shifts in movie-going habits and rising property values, he said.
Closure of the drive-in also figures into Sun Basin’s plans for construction of a new 14-screen multiplex, the Gateway Cinema 14 in north Wenatchee’s Olds Station. Financing of the new $8 million multiplex could be partially funded by the eventual sale of the 11-acre Vue Dale property, although long-term plans call for use of the property by light industry or development of condos or apartments.
The 2.95-acre Columbia Cinema parcel in East Wenatchee, sold last month to a Spokane developer, would also help finance the new multiplex.
Construction of the multiplex is set to start next month in hopes of opening in May for 2011’s summer blockbusters.
“We know lots of people have fond memories of Vue Dale,” Cook said. “But unfortunately, it comes down to economics, in finding the best use for the property and the best way to bring good movies to the area.”
Cook said he remembers watching Elvis movies at the Vue Dale from the back seat of his parents’ car. The theater, then owned by Charles Greime and partners, would be crowded with couples on Saturday night dates and families on evening outings. Back then, a sell-out crowd was common, he said.
“But now I can’t remember the last time we had a sell-out,” he said. “It’s been at least 10 years — and it must have been for one of the summer blockbusters.”
Mel Duvaul, 72, who worked for local theater companies for more than 40 years, said he remembers Bryan Cook first starting out as a doorman at the downtown Liberty Cinemas. “He did really well, got along with people, and worked his way up. Now, he’s got some good ideas for expansion.”
Duvaul said sell-outs at the Vue Dale were frequent back in the 1950s and ’60s. “We used to fill that thing up — overflow crowds,” said Duvaul, who managed the Vue Dale for a number of years beginning around 1960 and became known locally as “Mr. Vue Dale.” He also managed and operated the Liberty and Vitaphone theaters downtown and, later, helped run the Columbia Cinema in East Wenatchee. He retired from Sun Basin Theatres in 2007.
“We’ll always have people who’ll miss the drive-in,” Duvaul said. “In summer, it’s a perfect place for orchard workers with families. They work till late, past sunset, then load the kids in the car for a couple of movies. People used to come to the concession stand and order pizzas and hot dogs and have dinner during the movie, in the back of their trucks or picnics in front of the car. Kids fell asleep on the back seats.”
He remembered having three showings on the theater’s huge, single screen. “Summertime, we wouldn’t start the movie until 9:45 or so. It’d be daylight sometimes before I was heading home.”
Said Duvaul, “Those were the days! Beautiful nights with big crowds. But times change, things change.”
Of course, said Cook, television took its toll on the movie audience in the 1960s as viewing habits shifted from big-screen studio productions, shown in theaters, to small-screen comedies and dramas that could be watched while wearing pajamas at home.
Even as the number of drive-ins in the state peaked at 83 in 1975, the number of tickets sold was already declining, especially in urban areas, he added. “The writing was on the wall, or ... on the screen.”
The challenge now, said Cook, is to present movies at the Vue Dale before they get to DVD. Changes in how movies are advertised and distributed nationally have shortened the time from movie screen to home screen, he said.
The whole concept of a second-run movie pretty much vanished when DVDs began appearing only months after a picture was released, Cook said. That meant yanking a movie early from the indoor theater to use at the drive-in, he said. “It didn’t always make good business sense to do that.”
The new multiplex in Olds Station could further complicate how and where movies are shown locally by increasing the number of area screens from 13 to 22. “Scheduling (movies) becomes a tricky balancing act of new and old,” Cook said. “We need to keep those screens lit up with what’s new.”
Of course, smiled Cook, an enthusiastic crowd of drive-in enthusiasts still exists. “They love the whole experience of movies under a huge sky with warm breezes, sitting in lawn chairs in the bed of their pickup trucks. You can’t really blame them — it’s a fun thing to do.”
Sitting in her SUV while kids and friends watched “Toy Story 3,” Jo Hernandez agreed. Her 6-year-old daughter, Allie, squealed as Woody and Buzz battled an evil Teddy bear up on the screen.
“She’ll remember these nights for the rest of her life,” Hernandez said. “This is something really special.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179
Memories of the Vue Dale Drive-In
Many Wenatchee residents have expressed support for saving the local drive-in theater on a busy Facebook page called “Keep the Vue Dale Drive-In Open.” Many supporters have also posted memories of how the theater affected their lives. A sampling of comments:
"I went to the Vue Dale with my family when I was a kid back in the 1950s. Later, our family lived next door to the theater. I used to watch movies in my backyard. The one lone screen, back then, was enormous. And kids could play on big toys down near the screen — safely — unattended. Believe that? Let’s declare it a historical landmark and make it illegal to tear it down."
— Michael Ernest Bull
"We love the drive-in. Our son has ADHD and it’s hard to keep him from disurbing others around him at the movie theaters. And my husband and I both have some back problems. It’s nice to be comfy at the drive-in, and we all can enjoy being out of the house. Please don’t close it; we’ve been going for years."
— Shelly Louise Lau
"Being the youngest, I always sat in the front seat between mom and dad. I remember when we got our first car without a divided windshield, and I could watch the movie “all in one piece”! The Vue Dale is a great family event that is still important to our culture and heritage. I hope thousands more families will continue to build memories there!"
— Karen Koch
"I remember many weekends with a pickup full of people, backed in to a back row spot, watching movies at the drive-in. It is not the only one left in the state, but it absolutely is the one that I have the fondest memories of. My husband and I had our first real date there almost 20 years ago."
— Samantha Marsh Everett
For more comments and memories, visit Facebook.com, keywords “vue dale.”
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