Auto Vue drive-in closing next year

East Side’s last outdoor theater opened in 1953

December 26, 2012 - Updated: 1:30 a.m.

Eastern Washington’s last remaining drive-in movie theater will close next year.

The owner of the Auto Vue Drive-In Theatre in Colville, Steve Wisner, recently announced the theater will show its last film Labor Day weekend.

It’s one of many independently owned drive-ins nationwide falling victim to technology as Hollywood makes the switch from 35-millimeter film to digital.

Despite good business over the years – the Auto Vue set a daily attendance record last year – Wisner said the $82,000 cost to upgrade to digital is too much.

“Technology has just drove us out,” he said. “We’d have to upgrade to new digital and we cannot afford it.”

He also needs a new screen, which would cost $94,000, and because digital projection equipment requires a more sterile, air-conditioned environment, he’d have to pay about $2,000 for upgrades to the projection booth.

“It’s pretty much financially not feasible to be open any longer,” he said.

Wisner said 35-millimeter equipment “runs forever and ever and ever and you can fix it usually without much trouble.”

“Now with digital it is just scary,” he said.

There are six drive-in theaters left in Washington, including the Auto Vue. The Auto Vue, which opened in 1953 and will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2013, is the only drive-in open east of the mountains.

Wisner, whose family has owned the Auto Vue since 1974, grew up at a drive-in. His grandfather taught him to be a projectionist when he was 13 in The Dalles, Ore.

His father was a projectionist as well before moving into management. He got tired of working for other people and purchased both the Auto Vue and Colville’s indoor Alpine Theater.

Wisner took over in 1994. He plans to keep the Alpine Theater open.

Many area residents were dismayed at the news and suggested fundraisers to keep the theater open and halt what they see as the end of an era.

“People like going to the drive-in,” Wisner said. “It’s an inexpensive place to go, take the whole family. And let’s not forget the high school kiddies. They love it.”

But running a drive-in theater is hard work for a modest return, and the big companies that run multiplex theaters aren’t likely to take interest, said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary with the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

“If it was simply the love of money, there probably wouldn’t be a lot out there,” he said. “If it was big revenue, you’d see the big boys in it. Drive-ins are too much trouble for those guys. It’s a very hard-earned business.”

Vogel said that although some drive-ins are closing, others are opening or being resurrected each year.

“I think there’s a fog out there right now for drive-ins, and I think that we’re going to get through it,” he said.

Studios save money using digital because they don’t have to ship heavy film reels around the country and to help defray the cost, they can pay owners a virtual print fee based on the number of times they show a film in digital format.

Loans also are available, but Wisner, who just upgraded the Alpine Theater, isn’t interested in taking on more debt.

While he said it’s strange to close the business after working at drive-ins his whole life, he has other plans: He’s considering growing hops on the 4  1/2 acres the theater now sits on.

“I found out they’re hard to kill,” he said. “They grow very well in this area.”

Drive-in heyday

At the height of the drive-in industry in Washington in 1972, there were 71 drive-in theaters operating. At their peak in 1958, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 drive-ins operating in the United States. Today, there are about 366 across the country.

Map of this story's location

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