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Will digital kill the drive-in? Local theaters on the verge of extinction

When the Skyline Drive-In theater opened in Shelton in 1964, the very first double feature was Lady and the Tramp and Billy Budd. Now, a year shy of the classic drive-in's 50th anniversary, it's faced with a challenge that historic theaters and drive-ins across the country are facing.

"Everything is going digital," says Skyline Drive-In's marketing director, Christopher Mayes. "They're moving away from the 35 millimeter film that has been used for years and years and years. For theaters everywhere, they need to convert and they need to do that right away. But that's a cost of somewhere between $40-$50,000 per screen."

Christopher says they've launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $40,000 so the theater can stay open.

"Back in the 50's and 60's, there were more than 4,000 nationwide. Now, just in Washington state, there are five left, one of which has already said they can't afford to convert to digital. So they'll be closing by the end of this year. There will be four drive-ins, all in Western Washington."

Meanwhile, the 73-year-old Olympic Theater in Arlington, Washington is facing the same exact issue. It's almost halfway to it's goal of raising the $30,000 it needs to go digital. In Mount Vernon, the Lincoln Theater is trying to gather $100,000 for the switch over. Up in Everett, there's the Historic Everett Theater.

"The theater opened originally in 1901, so we've been open for 112 years now," says Randy Haines, who's on the board of directors. "It's actually the oldest operating theater this side of the Mississippi."

The theater is equipped with the classic, wine colored velvet seats, and the curtains are still opened and closed by hand. It hosts all kinds of live shows, as well as movies, including the cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show. If they can't raise the money to go digital, Randy fears the theater will not survive on plays alone. He thinks it would be a huge shame to lose the historic institution.

"It's gone back and forth from an opera house to a movie house to a play house. We have seen a lot of really big names through here. Lon Cheney, before he was the Phantom of the Opera, performed on this stage. Al Jolson was on this stage. Nat King Cole," Randy says. "There's just something about the history, there's just a vibe to this place that's still alive. When you come into this theater, you can't help but fall in love with it."

All of these theaters bring in just enough money to survive, mostly due to concession sales. They don't have tens of thousands of dollars lying around. Chris hopes these communities feel as strongly about saving these historic theaters as he does.

"It's nice to be able to go out to the movies and see your neighbors and see your friends and support local business people. As opposed to, you know, a megaplex that's at the mall."

"I was just looking online at another theater, somewhere out east, that was also called the Historic Everett Theater," says Randy. "I want to say it was built in the 20's or 30's, and they're going through the same struggles. There are all these really cool buildings. But in addition to those really cool buildings, there's a culture that's kind of dying."

If you'd like to support any of these theaters, click on a link below:

The Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon, WA

The Historic Everett Theater in Everett, WA

The Olympic Theater in Arlington, WA

Skyline Drive-In Theater in Shelton, WA

Rachel Belle, Ron and Don Show Reporter
Rachel Belle is a feature contributor and personality on The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio (weekdays 3-7pm), and host of Ring My Belle Weekends (Saturdays at 5pm and Sundays at 3pm).
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