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Doug Clark: Help save Colville’s Auto-Vue Drive-In

Sun., Aug. 4, 2013, midnight

The final curtain was falling on the Auto-Vue, Colville’s venerable drive-in theater that turned 60 this season.

That was the storyline earlier this summer, anyway.

It all came down to dollars and cents, explained Steve Wisner, the Auto-Vue’s owner.

Not long ago, Wisner took out a loan to upgrade the Alpine Theater, the traditional cinema he owns in Colville, from old-school film to slick state-of-the-art digital.

This wasn’t done on a whim. If you want to show new releases, it’s either go digital or find a new line of work. As ironic as it sounds, the film industry won’t be sending film to theaters anymore.

But after that expense, Wisner said he simply couldn’t borrow the $186,000 it would take to modernize the Auto-Vue’s projection system as well as replace its dangerously decrepit screen.

And so this third-generation movie man was forced to make a hard call.

This season would be the Auto-Vue’s last hurrah. After that, Wisner planned to turn the acreage into a hops farm, and that’s where this tale should have faded to black.

Cue credits.

But like the sappy plot from a cornball ’40s flick, something inspirational began to brew. Drive-in lovers from Colville and beyond begged Wisner to reconsider.

A Save the Auto-Vue Drive-In committee was born. Meetings were held. Fundraising concerts and auctions are in the works. Donations can be made at any Key Bank or via www.gofundme.com/3nx3fs, which has raised $3,420 at last look.

The Auto-Vue is also entered in Project Drive-In, a national contest sponsored by Honda. Digital projectors will be given to the five drive-ins receiving the most votes. Check out the Auto-Vue Drive-In’s Facebook page for details.

In the wake of this outpouring, Wisner is starting to believe in happy endings.

After some comparative shopping, the 61-year-old now thinks he can upgrade the Auto-Vue for a much more reasonable figure. (The current goal is $136,000.)

Even if only half that figure is reached by January, he said, “we’re just gonna keep going.”

I hope the Auto-Vue makes it. In my mind, no enterprise is as steeped in romance or nostalgia as the American drive-in. Of course, I’m a card-carrying member of the car-culture generation.

I cherish those drive-in days of my youth, sardined into sedans with my pals as we soaked up creature features and horror movies at Spokane venues like The East Sprague. The North Cedar. The West End. The Starlite. The Y …

I remember leaving the East Trent just before dawn once after enduring a marathon of all three of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns.

For a while, I attempted to keep track of the body count, but I fell asleep halfway through “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

They’re long gone now, the Spokane drive-ins, every last one of them.

Colville’s Auto-Vue is one of only a handful of drive-ins still operating in the state, and it would be a shame to see it drive into the tar pits.

So wanting to do our part, my lovely wife, Sherry, and I rolled into the Auto-Vue just north of Colville on a recent balmy night.

I would encourage anyone with a soft spot for drive-ins to do the same. Before going, however, I would advise you to do something that I didn’t bother doing:

Check the movie listings.

I know. It sounds like a no-brainer. But for some reason, I had “Despicable Me 2” stuck in my noggin because it had been playing at the Auto-Vue the last time I looked. Or at least I thought it was.

To my credit I did get the “2” right. Unfortunately, what was being aired was “Grown Ups 2.”

So instead of taking Sherry to a cute, smartly written animated film, we wound up suffering through two moronic hours of crass booger, gas and dingus jokes as only Adam Sandler – the Cecil B. Dimwit of cinema – can deliver them.

Not being able to pick up and walk out of a bad movie is a real limitation about drive-ins.

Exiting the drive-in early means you must start your car, turn on your lights and annoy the hell out of everybody, some of whom may have deer rifles.

Then you’ll be lucky to locate the exit without running over some popcorn-gobbling tyke sprawled in a lawn chair next to daddy’s supersized 4x4.

Sandler gross-outs aside, our drive-in date was a charming blast from the past. There’s something magical about seeing a movie in the fresh air, being able to cuddle your honey in the front seat and feeling like Ferdinand Magellan as you try to locate your car in the blackness after you emerge from the stark bright of the concession stand.

Drive-in audio has come a long way. Movie sound is now beamed through your car’s FM radio instead of those clunky metal speakers that we sometimes tried to liberate after the movie was over.

I have to admit feeling a little sorry for Wisner after talking to the man.

“I’m one of the few who grew up not going to the drive-in with the guys on the weekends,” he told me. “I was too busy working at the drive-in.” Wisner’s father, Earl, managed The Dalles Drive-In in Oregon during his son’s formative years.

Wisner does have plenty of great drive-in memories, however. It’s just that most of them involve catching sneaks who tried to scam their way into the drive-in without paying.

One of his favorites involves three guys and a Chevy Citation. Wisner knew something was off when the Citation’s lone driver drove up to the ticket window.

First, the kid acted nervous. Second, he had sweaty hands. Third was the clincher.

All the suspicious extra weight in the trunk had the Chevy’s nose sticking skyward like the Washington Monument.

Wisner followed the compact and then watched amazed as the Citation’s tiny trunk gave birth to 300-plus pounds’ worth of two guys who were each well over 6 feet tall.

“Wasn’t that a little close in there?” asked Wisner, stifling a laugh.

One of the thoroughly humiliated lugs spoke the obvious.

“It wasn’t a good idea.”

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 ordougc@spokesman.com.


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