MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

Double Feature: Historic cinema and drive-in for sale in Colville

Jan 3, 2024, 11:08 AM | Updated: 11:13 am

Movie theatres are experiencing something of a resurgence in the aftermath of the pandemic, as audiences have rediscovered an appreciation for sitting in the dark to enjoy watching films in the company of strangers.

So, the timing might be perfect for anyone who has ever wanted to take their love of film a step further and get into the movie theatre business because an art deco cinema and drive-in are for sale as a package deal in Colville, Wash., just north of Spokane.

Colville is about 75 miles north of the Lilac City on the historic highway known as US 395. The establishments for sale are the Alpine Theatre in downtown Colville and the Auto-Vue Drive-In Theatre just north of town on the way to Kettle Falls. With no traffic, it’s a roughly six-hour drive from the Seattle area.

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The current owner and operator of both businesses is Steve Wisner, a third-generation movie theatre guy. His grandfather Earl Wisner got his start in the silent film era at the Granada Theatre in The Dalles, Oregon, nearly a hundred years ago, and then ran The Dalles Drive-In, too. Wisner’s late father, also named Earl, was in the business, too.

The younger Wisner is turning 72 soon, and he spent most of his life running projectors and popcorn machines.

“My first paying job when I was 10 years old at 50 cents an hour – great pay for a 10-year-old at that time – was I was fixing speakers at The Dalles Drive-In Theater,” Wisner told KIRO Newsradio.

Movie theatres are clearly in Wisner’s blood. His parents bought the Alpine and Auto-Vue about 50 years ago, and Steve’s been involved pretty much the whole time. He officially took over from his parents a few decades back.

But now, Steve Wisner wants to retire, and so the Alpine and the Auto-Vue are for sale. They went on the market in November for the asking price of $800,000 for the whole package – the business, the gear, the real estate, everything – including state-of-the-art digital projectors (the transition to which had put some long-time theatres out of business.)

“If you’ve always wanted to be in the theater business, this is something you can do,” Wisner said. “Also, it will probably do better because for me, [the Alpine] used to be open seven days a week, and the drive-in used to be open six days a week, and I just don’t have the energy anymore to want to work that much.”

Wisner said the Alpine is currently open five days a week, and the Auto-Vue is open on weekends only from late spring to Labor Day, showing first-run films.

This all sounds very tempting for anyone who might be looking for a new business opportunity and a chance to take over a movie theatre empire in a rural Northwest town. And, in case you’re worried about where you might live if you bought the theatres, Wisner points out that the theatres are residential properties, too.

There’s an apartment in the movie theatre in town, and there’s also one in the projection room/concession stand building at the drive-in. Wisner said that one in particular is in a pretty amazing setting. He should know – he lived there for 16 years.

“In the kitchen, you can look out at the mountains,” Wisner said. “The Colville River goes by, and I don’t know why they call it ‘Colville River’ because it’s more like ‘Colville Creek,’ and you can see the bald eagles flying around, going after fish.”

“It’s pretty cool,” Wisner continued. “It’s beautiful. And because it’s so dark out there – well, it used to be a lot darker, but now there’s other businesses around – and you’d see the Northern Lights.”

KIRO Newsradio didn’t examine a balance sheet or ask to see any profit & loss statements or other important details about the business, but Wisner said it’s a solid operation.

Along with those recently updated digital projectors, both theatres have all the other necessary gear and the buildings and systems are also up to date.

Both physical plants have been around for many, many decades. The Alpine Theatre opened on January 8, 1937. It seats 220 and has a cool vintage neon sign out front that appears to be from the theatre’s earliest days. The Auto-Vue opened in June 1953 and can hold 220 cars. It’s one of only five drive-ins remaining in Washington and the only one east of the Cascades.

Wisner doesn’t seem nostalgic or sentimental about the transition ahead, as he takes his family out of the movie theatre business after three generations. He’s clearly ready to retire.

“I think my daughter and wife will be more sad,” Wisner said. “But not me, no. I have been there, and I’ve done it all.”

Wisner also points out that he’s technically not the end of the line; a grandson is working at a movie theatre in Spokane while attending Eastern Washington University to become an engineer.

Now, in fantasizing about buying the Colville theatres, I’ll admit I had what I thought were some really good ideas about special events, like “mini film festivals” and occasional screenings of vintage movies, that a new owner could offer there to create excitement and generate more business.

Wisner didn’t say it in so many words, but I could tell he was thinking, “Been there and done all that, too.”

“I’ve had some car clubs talk me into playing ‘American Graffiti,'” Wisner said, referencing George Lucas’ 1973 paean to mid-century chrome and cruising culture. For some reason, Wisner said, it didn’t generate much business.

“They die. They just die,” Wisner lamented. “No one wants to see old movies or whatever. That’s probably the worst weekend of the whole year. It’s just terrible.”

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Colville is a small town – less than 5,000 people – so everybody knows everybody. Thus, KIRO Newsradio had no choice but to gently inquire how this whole notion of change at the Alpine and the Auto-Vue was going over with the townsfolk.

Wisner chuckled at the question and then repeated some of the questions that curious Colvillians had been asking him at the grocery store and the gas station.

“‘Have you sold it yet?'” Wisner said. “‘Have you had anybody [make an offer]?’ Is it anybody [from] around here?’ ‘Is anybody from California?'”

In spite of that last question – or maybe because of it – Wisner offered his assurances that any buyer from any part of the world will be welcomed in Colville with open arms – but maybe those arms will be open just a little bit more for someone from the Evergreen State. KIRO Newsradio received the same assurances from Don Birch, president of the Stevens County Historical Society, a group that operates a history museum in Colville.

As one last incentive, I can say that whoever buys the Alpine and the Auto-Vue, regardless of wherever he or she may be from, I’ll be happy to share my bad ideas for programming and special events, free of charge.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Double Feature: Historic cinema and drive-in for sale in Colville