Spokane’s historic Garland Theater could be dying a slow death, not for the first time in its nearly 78-year history.
And once again, there are plans to save it, though this time they require the community’s support.
Chris Bovey, owner and founder of Vintage Print and Neon, launched a fundraiser Monday with a $300,000 goal. If that money is raised, it would be used to reimagine the single-screen discount theater – and hopefully save it.
“The theater is losing a lot of money, which is no different than any other theater in the country right now,” said Bovey, whose first job was working the concession stand and cleaning the aisles of the theater. “More than 2,000 theaters have closed since the pandemic, and we don’t want (the Garland) to become another statistic.”
Instead of focusing on the second-run movie market that has been destroyed by streaming services, Bovey envisions the Garland as the region’s marquee venue for classic movies that modern viewers have never seen on the big screen.
While Bovey wants to keep the cost for most shows at the low prices for which the Garland has been known since the ’80s – tickets cost $5 or less – he sees the Garland as the perfect venue for large events, with costume parties and food themed around the evening’s big-name movie.
A reimagining is necessary.
After new movies air at first-run theaters, such as AMC or Cinemark, second-run theaters, for decades offered more affordable tickets for the same film a few months later. But the window of time between a movie’s premiere and its arrival to streaming platforms has gotten smaller .
Katherine Fritchie, who purchased the business in 1999 and the building in 2002, had been talking about selling the Garland for a few years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just wanted to pass the torch,” she said. “I’d been doing it at that point for 20 years, and I have other things I’m interested in.”
But Fritchie either could not find a buyer who seemed like the right fit or a deal would fall through at the last minute, she said.
“It takes a special person to put in that work,” she said. “I would love to pass the torch to Chris Bovey.”
After years selling prints online and in local stores like Atticus Coffee & Gifts, Bovey opened his first brick-and-mortar Vintage Prints a few doors down from the Garland, in a building also owned by Fritchie.
Bovey started talking with Fritchie a few months ago about the theater’s future.
“I realized that we’re very, very close to closing the doors completely, forever,” he said. “That, for me, made it urgent.”
While attendance at second-run movies has dipped into the teens, airings last year of “The Wizard of Oz” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” were sold out, Bovey said.
“I think there’s better engagement and sales by showing these classic movies, hyping them up and making some special events,” he added.
Bovey pointed to the success of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a chain that shows some first-run movies but also specializes in classic films with accompanying events.
“They started with one movie house in Austin and now are up to 40 theaters,” Bovey said. “In a day and age where theaters are closing, that’s pretty rare.”
In addition to pivoting the business model, funds raised toward the Garland’s $300,000 would go to “cleaning up the place” with new paint and other aesthetic improvements, Bovey said.
A history of rebirth
When the Garland Theater first opened on Thanksgiving Day 1945, it was a spectacle.
From the start, the theater, which cost $500,000 to build, billed itself as a “21st Century Theater,” boasting “mountain-fresh air, scientifically purified” by germicidal ultraviolet lamps, The Spokesman-Review reported at the time.
It was the first “stadium-type” movie theater in Spokane, where the balconies were recessed behind the main floor rather than hanging over it, which created “dead space” where it was difficult to hear. It also had the first example of “continental style seating,” with rows wide enough that patrons could easily access the upholstered seats.
Attendees to the first movie shown in the theater, “It’s a Pleasure,” starring Sonja Henie, praised the “ultramodern” lobby.
The Garland Theater promised to show only the best of the best second-run films, those that “have been put to the test and have met with the greatest popular acclaim.”
The theater first changed hands in 1959, when it was sold to Edward Metzgar. He sued the prior owners in 1961, however, claiming that they had misrepresented the theater’s profits.
“It’s a lovely theater,” Metzgar said at the time. “It had everything but customers.”
After a protracted legal battle that Metzgar lost, the theater was sold to Favorite Theaters, which owned a number of sit-down and drive-in theaters throughout the area, in 1961.
The next year, after major renovations and redecoration, the theater pivoted to airing first-run movies, playing “Lolita” on opening night.
In 1972, it was taken over by the Bellevue-based Sterling Recreation Organization Theaters, which tried to make its mark on the historic theater.
They experimented with airing X-rated films, including the original, more explicit release of “A Clockwork Orange” in 1972. In 1977, protesters collected 1,400 signatures asking for the theater to stop airing such explicit movies.
But single-screen theaters like the Garland were the last of a dying industry slowly killed by the modern multiplex.
In 1986, the Garland closed “for good,” one of many local theaters that shuttered their doors that year, The Spokesman-Review reported.
The Garland Theater was then reopened in 1988 by partners Don Clifton and Dale Reese, who leased the property.
Their pitch to customers was simple: Not only would they return to their second-run roots, they would do so for a low price.
“We’re going to be a dollar – any seat, any showing,” Clifton said at the time. “We’ll be running regular first run-type movies, but they won’t be first run.”
The latest incarnation
Tickets prices increased to $1.50 by the time Fritchie bought the business in 1999.
A teacher at the Institute for Extended Learning, Fritchie had been looking for a new occupation in which she could bring along her kids . She landed, of all things, on operating the 54-year-old movie theater.
The theater had become run down , with a stained screen, aging seats and a malfunctioning popcorn popper – when it broke, Fritchie would run across town to use the kettle at a Regal theater.
She’s also had to raise ticket prices to today’s $5, still below standard fare.
Along the way, there were moments when she wondered, as had her predecessors, whether the theater was going out of style.
“I would get nervous that, oh, people are putting home theaters in their houses, they won’t come to the theater anymore,” she said. “I’ve been through this before.”
The rise in streaming has felt different, requiring a more radical shift in business model to adapt, she acknowledged.
“We have to keep it fresh,” she said. “You can’t do the same old thing and expect it to last.”
Bovey said compared the prospect of losing the Garland Theater to the community’s loss in 2020 of historic retailer the White Elephant.
“I think it would be irreversible,” he said. “If this place closes down, it’s going to be one of those heartbreaking things, like the White Elephant was, and I don’t think Spokane wants to see that.”