In 2013 the Colville’s Auto Vue Drive-in theater will celebrate its 60th birthday, and its retirement party at the same time. Owner Steve Wisner said he will not re-open the drive-in after the summer of 2013 because he can neither afford new technology or repairs to the movie screen.
To stay in business, Wisner must buy a new digital processor for the drive-in that will cost $82,000. Movie suppliers will make the switch from 35 mm film to a digital format after 2013, and Wisner will not be able to buy movies on film for his processor any longer.
“I talked to my film-booker, and she was telling me that it is getting harder to get film now for some of the theaters who are still using 35 mm,” Wisner said. “So I don't know what it will be like out at the drive-in for film [summer of 2013]. It may not be as recent as I used to be able to get.”
Save thousands on shipping costs
Wisner said he spent $74,000 on a new processor for the Alpine Theatre in downtown Colville in 2012. He admits that the sound and picture quality of the digital processor is much better than his film processor. And he says that he has cut costs in shipping since he purchased it.
“I figured that I'm going to be saving thousands of dollars in shipping now because they [movie suppliers] don't have to ship film,” Wisner conceded. “Those [film rolls] could be anywhere from 45 to 75 pounds of film,” Wisner said.
But a new processor is only one of Wisner's conundrums.
“The [drive-in] screen is falling down,” he said. “I've had [my] contractor look at it [the screen], and the insurance company contractor look at it. They both said that it should be torn down.”
Even though Wisner attempted to repair the screen, he couldn’t find a contractor to make a bid on it. Overall, Wisner estimates that the replacement cost for the screen would be $94,000.
Both processor and a new screen would push the bill to $176,000 in order for the drive-in to stay open.
Even though people have offered to help through fund-raisers, Wisner doesn’t believe that he has enough time. Wisner only has one more summer before the 35mm film supply becomes obsolete.
“A lot of people have been saying that they want to do fund-raisers, but it's almost $200,000,” Wisner said. “Let's get real. When I was part of (Colville) Rotary, the (Colville City Park) park pavilion took over four years to get replaced. I don't have four years.”
What will Wisner do with the land after the drive-in closes? He won't let the land stay unattended. He wants to plant hops on the property and use the buildings to process them.
“It's a very good area for it,” said Wisner.
Hops are big business in Washington state. The Yakima Valley, for instance, contains upwards of 75 percent of the United States’ hop acreage.
Last of its kind
Despite his plans to move on and farm the land, he regrets the end of the drive-in.
The Auto View has been an iconic presence in Northeast Washington for decades.
“It is sad to see it go,” Wisner admitted.
Originally built in 1953, the drive-in holds copious history for the community as well as personal history for Wisner. The drive-in is the last of its kind in Eastern Washington and the last of six still operating in the state, according to www.drive-in.com .
Wisner, the third generation to be involved in the movie business, took over his father Earl’s business in 1995. He said that he remembers spending his childhood at drive-in theaters.
“I actually grew up in the drive-in—literally. I remember being a little kid, standing up on the dash, and watching the movies,” he explained.
When he was older, Wisner got a job in the movie business and even lived in the apartment complex above the concession stand at the Auto View. He has many memories connected to that outdoor theater. In reminiscing, he told humorous stories of catching people sneaking their friends into the theater. He remembers one night that stood out when he caught two young culprits.
“A girl had sneaked her friend into the theater in the trunk of her car. I just happened to be walking by when she opened up the trunk and let her buddy out. I said, 'Hi, how are you doing?' And they [started] shifting uneasily.
“I started laughing…and I couldn't stop.
'Do you know that it's car-load night and it doesn't really matter how many people you bring in?' (Car-load night means that the entrance fee is per car instead of per person.)
“She said she forgot about that. Later, the girl said that was her first time [sneaking somebody into the drive-in].”
But Wisner is not the only one that shares fond memories of the drive-in and regrets having to let it go. Many locals have posted on the Colville Auto Vue Facebook account. There are many memories of the drive-in and regrets about its closing. After 60 years, the Auto Vue drive-in, hard by Highway 395 between Colville and Kettle Falls, will retire and close—not for the season—but for the last time in the fall of 2013.