Curtain to rise on revived Kiggins

After $200,000 in improvements and lots of sweat equity, historic Vancouver theater will soon welcome film lovers

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: Screenings of “American Graffiti” at the newly renovated, soon-to-be-reopened Kiggins Theatre.

When: Throughout the day on Saturday.

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Admission: Free.

Information:http://on.fb.me/iyIQ2U.

On the Web

For more information about Friends of the Kiggins, go to http://www.facebook.com/friendsofthekiggins.

When the curtains closed on Vancouver’s historic Kiggins Theatre more than a year ago, community members mourned the loss of a Main Street icon.

Now, after countless hours of sweat equity by owner Bill Leigh and a group of passionate volunteers and about $200,000 worth of facility improvements, the newly renovated Kiggins is about to reopen.

There will be a soft opening Saturday to coincide with Cruisin’ the Gut, the annual classic car event. The theater will offer free screenings of “American Graffiti” throughout the day. Leigh expects to open for business officially in August.

Kiggins will be the second historic Clark County theater to reopen this year. The two-screen Liberty Theatre in Camas, which closed in 2009, opened its doors again in March. The single-screen historic Old Liberty Theater in Ridgefield hadn’t operated as a theater since the late ’70s but was reopened in 1998 as a coffee shop, cinema and live performance venue.

In the past, Kiggins focused on second-run family flicks, but Leigh plans to shift the emphasis toward independent and art-house films. He plans to charge $5 for movie tickets, which is more than some second-run theaters but less than their first-run counterparts.

Kiggins will host live music performances, as well, and the upcoming Columbia Gorge International Film Festival, which takes place Aug. 10-14. Leigh also intends to rent the space out for private events.

Leigh hopes that with the revamped programming, renovations and addition of an upstairs bar, plus support from the new nonprofit Friends of the Kiggins, the theater will succeed this time around.

The landmark single-screen theater, at 1011 Main St., opened in 1936 and is named after entrepreneur and former Vancouver mayor J.P. Kiggins.

Leigh, a 52-year-old Felida resident and commercial real estate developer, purchased it and the adjoining retail space for $650,000 in 2008.

Since 2005, Kiggins had been operated by the Vancouver-based Historic Movie Theaters. Due to declining ticket sales, the company couldn’t cover rent and had to close the theater in May 2010.

Leigh, who has been buying and fixing up old buildings for 20 years, had hoped to find a new tenant to take over. When he couldn’t, he decided to tackle the challenge personally.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Leigh said of the approximately 11,000-square-foot theater.

He has been doing most of the renovations himself, spending 40-50 hours a week at the theater. He said he would have left it vacant if not for support and encouragement from community members, who wanted to preserve what they saw as an integral part of downtown Vancouver’s history.

“I think it’s vital to downtown and Vancouver’s identity,” said Seanette Corkill, Friends of the Kiggins board member. The group will help raise funds for and support the theater, as well as other area nonprofits, she said. On its list of goals is to raise enough money to refurbish the Kiggins marquee and repair the roof.

Friends of the Kiggins is registered as a nonprofit with the state, and is applying for federal nonprofit status. Currently, there are three board members and upwards of 40 volunteers who combined have spent more than 300 hours helping Leigh with renovations.

“You’ve got to preserve your history. People want to connect with the past. They also want to enjoy current events in a historic setting relevant to their lives,” said Corkill, who lives in Vancouver’s Arnada neighborhood. “(Kiggins) bridges all the generations of Vancouver because of the memories that have been created and the memories being created.”

Leigh is taking care to preserve and re-create as many historic details as possible, while still making upgrades aimed at providing a more pleasant movie-going experience for patrons.

He used a historically accurate color palette when repainting the interior, and installed original light fixtures that had been in storage. He also replaced the screen with a smaller version in keeping with what would have been used in the ’30s. That way, the proscenium arch will be more visible.

Some changes, though, modernize the space. Many of the old seats were original, and they were uncomfortable and in disrepair. Leigh replaced them with new, wider seats, and decided to put more room between rows to offer patrons additional legroom. There now are about 340 seats, compared to 540 before.

Leigh also is converting the second-story space that was originally a smoking lounge into a bar. He plans to offer food beyond popcorn and candy, though is still working out the specifics.

In other changes, Leigh redid the restrooms and put in additional stalls, though they’re all upstairs. As funds allow, he either wants to put in an elevator or add a downstairs restroom to make the theater more wheelchair-accessible.

By making Kiggins more inviting, Leigh hopes to revitalize both the theater and the city.

“I believe this will be a boost for the downtown economy,” he said, adding that oftentimes people like to go out to dinner or shop before a show, which will be good for businesses near Kiggins.

It will also provide a local option for Vancouver residents who favor the less expensive tickets and historic setting theaters like Kiggins offer.

Vancouver couple Jon and LeAnndra Bristow find themselves going to Portland to see movies at old theaters such as the Laurelhurst, the Bagdad or the Academy. On a recent walk through downtown Vancouver, they were excited to see signs announcing Kiggins’ reopening.

“It will give us a place on our side of the river to go to a little neighborhood theater,” said Jon Bristow, a 26-year-old pastor and bartender.

Historic theaters offer a more intimate alternative to “big-box” multiplexes, and have more character, Bristow said. They also offer a more affordable way to see movies.

Bristow grew up in Battle Ground and enjoyed going to Kiggins during his childhood.

“It was kind of a unique place to go as a kid to watch movies with your friends and family because it provided a different atmosphere than the newer theaters,” he said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.