May 29, 2014 in City

Doug Clark: Here’s to a happy ending for Colville’s Auto-Vue

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Doug Clark
(Full-size photo)

Like the happy ending in a corny movie, fans of the Auto-Vue have helped rescue Eastern Washington’s last drive-in theater from extinction.

OK. I’m sticking with that optimistic storyline knowing full well that plenty of unforeseen bad luck can still occur between now and the end of June.

That’s when Steve Wisner hopes to have Colville’s landmark drive-in open for yet another summer of open-air business.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people have asked me how the drive-in was doing,” said Wisner, 62, during a Wednesday morning phone interview. “Three people asked about it just in the hour before you called.”

You’re preaching to the choir, pal.

Having grown up in the golden age of drive-in movies, I have long lamented the passing of this clunky, yet thoroughly charming, form of entertainment.

Sure, now you watch movies on your phone.

Pretty soon they’ll be beaming “The Bachelor” into our skulls.

But there’s a lot to be said about parking at dusk in front of a big screen and making pizza and popcorn runs during intermission.

Last year about this time, however, Wisner’s answers to the above inquiries were depressingly pessimistic.

His plan back then was to close the drive-in, which his family had operated since 1974, and turn the land into a hops farm.

Who could blame him?

Wisner had just spent a lot of money to modernize the Alpine Theater, the traditional walk-in cinema he owns in downtown Colville.

As odd as it may sound, the film industry no longer ships actual film to theaters. Everything is digital, of course.

The result being that Wisner couldn’t afford to upgrade the Auto-Vue, too.

Plus the Auto-Vue’s woes didn’t end with the need for a digital projector. The drive-in’s crumbling screen was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

All told, Wisner figured an Auto-Vue makeover would cost $186,000 that he didn’t have.

In a movie script this is often referred to as the “all is lost” moment.

That’s when things started looking up.

A “Save the Auto-Vue Drive-in” group was formed and energized by Wisner’s daughter, Kellie. So far, over $11,000 has been donated to the cause via fundraisers and appeals through social media.

That number is still miles away from $186,000. But all the effort and community love for the Auto-Vue did something to Wisner. He realized he had to find a way to keep his throwback going.

A tip led him to Soap Lake for a used screen that was still standing and in good, non-rusty shape. It was his for a $4,000 scrap metal fee.

The Auto-Vue’s old screen was recently torn down. Its replacement, Wisner said, should be standing in a couple of weeks.

Getting a projector is a tougher proposition given that even a decent used one can cost $70,000.

Last summer, friends of the Auto-Vue thought they had found the answer in a national contest that gave away five digital projectors to struggling drive-ins.

The Auto-Vue, alas, wasn’t one of the lucky winners.

So Wisner got creative. He said he found a $3,000 projector that, if you move it to the front row, will project DVD movies across a drive-in screen.

It’s not a solution. But it does seem like a reasonable fix until Wisner can get his hands on a real-deal projector.

The problem is getting first-run releases on DVD format. Wisner said he’s working with his booker to see what sort of a playlist they can put together.

“It’s pretty much the only thing we can do until we get a new digital projector,” he said.

In the meantime, the Auto-Vue might have to air somewhat older movies. Or maybe Wisner can present some golden oldies on special theme nights.

Heck, I’d drive to Colville to watch an all-Hitchcock double feature of, say, “Psycho,” and “The Birds.”

I’m for whatever it takes to keep the Auto-Vue going.

It would be a real shame if the drive-in went dark for good.

Colville (pop. 4,675) is a great little town with or without the Auto-Vue, of course. But having Eastern Washington’s last drive-in does give Colville a certain distinction.

Not to mention a cool tradition.

When kids come back from college during the summer, it’s only natural to catch a movie at the Auto-Vue.

“They grew up here and got used to it,” explained Wisner, who added that it’s still fun to see his drive-in customers sitting in lawn chairs and all the little kids running around in their pajamas. “It hasn’t changed a damn bit in 40 years.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


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