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Last picture show? Historic North Bend Theatre for sale

LISTEN: Last picture show? Historic North Bend Theatre for sale

The historic North Bend Theatre is for sale.

But owner Cindy Walker isn’t just looking for someone who’s willing to pay the $800,000 asking price.

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She’s looking for a steward.

Walker and her family have owned the 1941 theatre for 12 years. Before them, the Slover family owned it for seven years. Before the Slovers, the Trostels owned it for nearly 30 years.

Prior to buying the theatre, the Walkers had no experience in the movie business. And they never expected to make a fortune running the place in this small town off Interstate 90 about 40 minutes east of Seattle.

“It was really the opportunity to get involved in the community,” Walker said, standing in the lobby of the distinctive Art Moderne structure earlier this week. “That was the driver over ‘How much money can we make doing this.’ My husband has a real job, so I get to do this, and we haven’t been dependent upon it for income.”

“The goal is to have it pay for itself, and it’s done okay,” Walker said.

Under Walker’s leadership, the North Bend Theatre upgraded its projection equipment and offered first-run films consistently enough to convince a lot of North Bend and Snoqualmie residents to skip the drive to the nearest multiplex, 20 miles away in Issaquah, and to watch movies someplace other than a device equipped with Netflix or Hulu.

But the theatre also offered a lot more than the latest comic book adaptation or dystopian blockbuster; it’s hosted fundraisers for local schools, free matinees for kids, special screenings for disabled students, and a series of film festivals for specialty audiences such as skiers, hang gliding enthusiasts, “Rocky Horror” devotees and “Twin Peaks” fans.

So why sell now?

Walker says that she’s ready to step aside so that somebody new can bring their passion to operating the theatre and serving the community.

Walker’s three kids – in high school when the theatre was purchased – are now adults. It’s also been a challenging year for her; she lost her father, and then battled breast cancer with rounds of chemotherapy. Walker says that she and her husband are ready to take time off to travel, and to care for her widowed mom, who lives out of state.

It was the previous owners, Karen and the late Brian Slover, who restored the theatre to its original glory around 1999, re-creating the long-lost “NORTH BEND” neon sign and refurbishing the interior and exterior to erase six decades of “improvements” that had robbed the venue of much of its original glory.

But the Walkers, too, will also leave the North Bend Theatre significantly better than they found it.

Dave Battey was born in the Snoqualmie Valley nearly 80 years ago, and he knows more about the area’s history than just about anybody. He first saw movies at the North Bend Theatre as a kid back in the 1940s and 1950s. He doesn’t remember any specific titles, but he recalls a lot of Disney films watched there with his older sister.

“There’s no question that Cindy has done an exemplary job of promoting the family and the kids coming to the theatre, and that’s pretty wonderful,” Battey said. “She hasn’t been in it for the money, she’s been in it to help the community.”

And it’s the community that’s benefited tremendously over the years from the Walkers’ efforts, according to Todd Scott. Scott is King County’s preservation architecr and he works to help private and commercial property owners preserve and restore historic resources.

A North Bend jewel

“They have been terrific stewards of the property,” said Scott, who clearly understands why the Walkers want to be choosy about who they will sell the theatre to.

“They’ve done a lot for the community with that building, and they don’t want to see all of their efforts and all of the community good that has built up around that theatre just go by the wayside,” Scott said.

Scott also confessed to being a little worried about the transition ahead.

“It’s a real jewel for the city of North Bend,” Scott said. “And anytime a property’s for sale, you always get a little concerned about what might happen with it.”

However, Scott is optimistic about the building’s future, in part because the North Bend Theatre is an element of something called the “North Bend Historic District,” and there are financial incentives available to help maintain and preserve it.

“They’re eligible to apply for preservation grant funding from 4Culture,” Scott said. “[And] because it’s an arts facility, too, they could be eligible to apply for some arts funding … [and] there are some state funds that are available as well.”

Documents shared by Scott describe how North Bend developed in phases throughout the 20th century, with a wave a new construction around 1941 when US 10, the old highway through town that predates Interstate 90, was widened and several buildings had to be razed or moved.

Dave Battey wrote about the history of the North Bend Theatre and other cinematic entertainment in the Snoqualmie Valley for the Snoqualmie Valley History Magazine in 2008. He found references to “photo plays” staged in tents as early as 1913, and a series of theatres that were built and which operated in and around Snoqualmie and North Bend from the teens into the 1930s.

The North Bend Theatre opened in early April 1941, Battey says, to replace a nearby venue for movies that was operating in the McClellan Hotel.

In an email, Cristy Lake of the Snoqualmie Valley Museum described the seamless transition from the old theatre to the new:

“From April 6-8, 1941, they played a double billing of ‘Blondie Plays Cupid’ and ‘Flight from Destiny’ at the old theatre in the McClellan Hotel. On April 9, they had an open house at the new theatre, and then on April 11 and 12, they played ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’ in the new theatre,” Lake wrote.

Fast-forward more than 40 years, and Bob Antone worked at the North Bend Theatre beginning in 1987 when he was just 13 years old.

Though it’s been a quarter-century since he worked there, it’s obvious that Antone still feels a strong connection to the place, and that he’s studied its history because he loves North Bend. And he has a family connection, too, because his late grandfather, John Antone, Sr., was a friend and contemporary of the theatre’s original projectionist.

The Twin Peaks effect

The younger Antone says that his most vivid memory was a Sunday evening in August 1992 when the film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” had its American premiere at the North Bend Theatre. Portions of it had been filmed in North Bend and Snoqualmie the year before, and the cult TV show it was based on had done much to attract tourists to the area (and it still does).

Director David Lynch was on hand for the premiere, as was Sheryl Lee and a few other members of the cast (though not Yakima native Kyle MacLachlan). The Seattle Times wrote that Lynch stumbled when he tried to compliment the authenticity of the old cinema, telling the capacity crowd of locals and out-of-towners that the North Bend Theatre “smells and looks … it’s the real thing.” The comment drew laughter and applause.

According to Antone, Lynch’s comments probably weren’t too far off the mark. Antone says that in 1992, the theatre wasn’t exactly the restored showplace that it is nowadays.

And Antone knows all about that night, because he got to watch the proceedings from the booth where he ran the projectors.

“The one thing that stands out is Laura Palmer’s scream,” Antone said, which comes near the end of the film. “And just being in that room with all those people that made the film, and just that epic moment of her scream.”

“I’ll never forget it, man,” Antone said.

One of the original 1941 projectors that Antone operated that night is still on-site at the North Bend Theatre. It now rests in a storage area behind the big screen, crowded with old posters and “Twin Peaks” memorabilia, where Cindy Walker showed it off to a reporter.

“This is how they used to get the light to work in here,” Walker said, pointing to the interior of the huge black projector that was in regular use until 1999. “This ‘cinder cone’ would sit in here, and an [electric] arc would come across it and spark that to make the big bright light that came through here.”

Legacy business

Nowadays, the North Bend Theatre has the latest digital projection equipment, which Todd Scott says makes it pretty distinctive.

“There aren’t that many small theatres around these days that have the right equipment to show first-run movies,” Scott said. “Cindy and her family have done a really good job of crowd-sourcing some funding to get the right projection equipment, and it’s just a real asset to the community.”

It’s clear that Todd Scott cares about the future of the North Bend Theatre, perhaps because it represents a rare instance where a specialized building – in this case, a movie theatre that first opened nearly 80 years ago – is still in operation, and still serving its original purpose. And this in an era when the local theatre industry has seen the closure of so many iconic cinemas, including the Harvard Exit, Guild 45th and Seven Gables in Seattle.

“This is one of those ‘legacy businesses,’” Scott said. “You’ve just got to find the right person. It’s turnkey – [a new owner] can move in, then they can decide what programming works best, [and maybe] add things to it.”

“If somebody had to start this from scratch it wouldn’t make sense at all,” Scott said. “But this one makes sense.”

Cindy Walker says that the North Bend Theatre has only been on the market for a few weeks, and that she’s under no pressure to sell it in a hurry – she wants to find a steward with a passion for the community. To hear her tell it, this is a different process than selling a residence, or even selling a more common piece of commercial property.

“We do have some interest [already], [but] we don’t have any offers on the table,” Walker said. “And we will only sell it to someone who exhibits that kind of passion, or we can see that that’s really what they’re looking for.”

“That’s more important to us than retiring off the theatre,” Walker said.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Bob Antone, Dave Battey, and Cristy Lake for photos and other assistance.

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