Independent theaters on epic quest for secret success formula

Kiggins, Liberty, Old Liberty strive to find niche

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

Kiggins Theatre

Where: 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Featuring: Art-house films, revivals, special events with lots of audience participation, Tuesday Trivia Nights.

Capacity: 340 seats.

Tickets: $5 movies; special events usually $8.

History: Opened April 24, 1936 with a showing of "She Married Her Boss," starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas. Designed by signature downtown Vancouver architect Day Walter Hilborn in Art Deco style and named for Vancouver John P. Kiggins.

Websites: kigginstheatre.net and facebook.com/newkigginstheatre

Liberty Theatre of Camas and Washougal

Where: 315 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas.

Featuring: Second-run mainstream movies, some special screenings.

Capacity: 348-seat main auditorium; 26-seat Granada Studio (stadium seating).

Tickets: $4, except $3 on Tuesday "bargain night"; all 3-D movies are $1 more.

History: Opened June 1927 as the Granada Theatre with a showing of "Lost at the Front" starring George Sidney and Charlie Murray. Designed by architect P.M. Hall Lewis of Portland; the building originally had a large stage for live performances, a pipe organ and seating capacity of 800.

Website: camasliberty.com

Old Liberty Theater

Where: 115 North Main, Ridgefield.

Featuring: Live music, special events.

Capacity: 200 seats.

Tickets: Usually $15 to $20.

History: Built as a birthday present for a returning war veteran and opened April 25, 1946, as the Liberty Theater, showing "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest" with Cornel Wilde and Russell Hicks; its movie-screening era was brief. Don and Earleen Griswold bought the place in 1995 and were named Ridgefield's Outstanding Citizens in 2009 for restoring its glory.

Website: oldlibertytheater.com

At least one other historical Clark County theater survives. The Mission Theater, at 2300 Main St. in Vancouver's Uptown Village, was converted to office space and is home to LSW Architects. LSW briefly revived its movie-showing career a few years ago, offering up the side of its building for monthly outdoor summer screenings sponsored by the Uptown Village Association -- but the new tradition didn't last.

Kiggins Theatre

Where: 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Featuring: Art-house films, revivals, special events with lots of audience participation, Tuesday Trivia Nights.

Capacity: 340 seats.

Tickets: $5 movies; special events usually $8.

History: Opened April 24, 1936 with a showing of “She Married Her Boss,” starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas. Designed by signature downtown Vancouver architect Day Walter Hilborn in Art Deco style and named for Vancouver John P. Kiggins.

Websites: kigginstheatre.net and facebook.com/newkigginstheatre

Liberty Theatre of Camas and Washougal

Where: 315 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas.

Featuring: Second-run mainstream movies, some special screenings.

Capacity: 348-seat main auditorium; 26-seat Granada Studio (stadium seating).

Tickets: $4, except $3 on Tuesday “bargain night”; all 3-D movies are $1 more.

History: Opened June 1927 as the Granada Theatre with a showing of “Lost at the Front” starring George Sidney and Charlie Murray. Designed by architect P.M. Hall Lewis of Portland; the building originally had a large stage for live performances, a pipe organ and seating capacity of 800.

Website: camasliberty.com

Old Liberty Theater

Where: 115 North Main, Ridgefield.

Featuring: Live music, special events.

Capacity: 200 seats.

Tickets: Usually $15 to $20.

History: Built as a birthday present for a returning war veteran and opened April 25, 1946, as the Liberty Theater, showing “The Bandit of Sherwood Forest” with Cornel Wilde and Russell Hicks; its movie-screening era was brief. Don and Earleen Griswold bought the place in 1995 and were named Ridgefield’s Outstanding Citizens in 2009 for restoring its glory.

Website: oldlibertytheater.com

Show the customers exactly what they want. Dazzle them with something different. Be dependable and affordable. Be innovative and exciting. Welcome children and be like Disney. Or serve beer and wine and get funky, like Portland’s McMenamins.

Staying alive is an epic 3-D quest for Clark County’s independent, historic movie houses. People get sentimental about venerable theaters for their classy feel and community history, but that doesn’t mean they prove their love with trips downtown and ticket sales. The formula has to be just right, local theater managers say, because the public is famously fickle and its multiplex habit is hard to break.

At least one other historical Clark County theater survives. The Mission Theater, at 2300 Main St. in Vancouver’s Uptown Village, was converted to office space and is home to LSW Architects. LSW briefly revived its movie-showing career a few years ago, offering up the side of its building for monthly outdoor summer screenings sponsored by the Uptown Village Association — but the new tradition didn’t last.

“We’re all trying to find a niche,” said Rand Thornsley, managing director of the Liberty Theatre of Camas and Washougal, who’s sticking with second-run movies plus the occasional special screening or simulcast.

“We’re still looking for the secret sauce,” said Dan Wyatt, who bought downtown Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre over a year ago and seems to be trying, well, just about everything.

What sticks

Speaking of sauce, the No. 1 question Wyatt fields these days is, “How’s the alcohol service going?”

The cinema superfan grew up in Salmon Creek, worked in the Los Angeles film world for a decade and then returned to Vancouver because of family and community. “I came back from SoCal for this,” he said. “I believe in this community.” Most shows at the Kiggins are $5; special events are $8.

Wyatt led the way when theater owners lobbied the state Legislature to open up their auditoriums to beer and wine. The law passed in spring (beer and wine sales are OK if your establishment has four or fewer screens), but it’ll probably be October before service starts. When supposed fans of

the Kiggins ask Wyatt if serving alcohol has already changed his fortunes, it simply signals to him that they don’t actually visit the place.

Wyatt is glad the law passed — and a little resentful too, he confessed. “I’m like the nerdy guy who wasn’t cool ’til he scored the keg. I’ve never run a bar,” he said. “If I had my druthers I’d just show movies, but that’s not the culture we live in.”

Ditto the new culture of social media. The Kiggins has more than 6,000 dedicated followers on Facebook who are “unbelievably active in terms of reading and writing and ‘sharing.’ But they don’t show up,” said Richard Beer, Wyatt’s marketing director.

“We are loved by all and visited by few,” said Wyatt, which leaves him “throwing a lot of mud at the wall to see what sticks.” Recent months have seen pairings of the new “My Little Pony: Equestria Girls” movie with “Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony,” a documentary about men who get deeply, sincerely into that little-girl world; costumed singalongs to “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”; and a double-feature of horror classic “The Shining” and an exploration of its supposed hidden meanings, “Room 237.”

Tuesday nights are movie-trivia nights, staged by a Portland event company called Synth-Bio and tailored to what’s featured onscreen that week. Summer Fridays are now the domain of “Steve and Matt D’s Midnight Movie,” since those owners of Bat Cave Games, out on East Mill Plain, protested the Kiggins’ lack of cult classics. The answer was, if the game shop covered the costs, the Kiggins would spread the word. Now there’s a full midnight Friday summer schedule including everything from low-budget splatterfest “Hobo with a Shotgun” to Mel Brooks’ Star Wars send-up “Spaceballs.”

Cheese and church

“We’re trying to find the balance between obscure and mainstream,” said Beer.

Wyatt added that partnerships with other local businesses are welcome. For the “Moulin Rouge!” singalong, neighboring restaurant Niche offered a tie-in meal that featured “French-inspired delicacies” and three different drinks — red, white and bubbly. After that, diners stumbled next door to watch high-kicking legs at the costumed can-can contest before the show.

There have been marathons of beloved television shows, from “Grimm” and “Dr. Who” to “Portlandia” and “Walking Dead.” “We really tapped into the geek culture,” said Wyatt. “People will come out in droves to watch TV at the movies. And they stay home to watch movies on TV.” So the Kiggins had it both ways in February, hosting a red-carpet rollout that drew stretch limousines, slinky dresses and gawking fans to a live broadcast of the Academy Awards television extravaganza. The event was co-sponsored by the Greater Vancouver Area Chamber of Commerce — underlining its support for downtown’s classic movie house.

“Re-education” is the Kiggins’ real mission, said Beer, who helped steer Portland’s historic Hollywood Theater back from a fire to become a successful independent art-film movie house. Today’s moviegoers mostly associate big old theaters with sticky floors, icky seats and leftover offerings for a buck or two. “So many downtown theaters are bottom-of-the-barrel,” he said. “We need to make sure people aren’t afraid of us.”

To help replace the sticky-icky with class, look for chamber music by the Vancouver Symphony at the Kiggins this fall. “It could be a whole new audience for us, the wine-and-cheese crowd,” said Wyatt.

And then, every Sunday morning, the Kiggins is leased out to the House of Providence church. “We’re glad to have them,” Wyatt said.

A little patience

If the Kiggins is trying everything, more or less, the Liberty Theatre of Camas and Washougal — that’s the proper name — remains dedicated to its original mission: mainstream movies.

“Everybody’s got a big screen in their living room but everybody still wants that shared, out-of-home experience,” said managing director Rand Thornsley.

When Thornsley revived the shut-down Liberty in 2011, there were many requests for special events upon the theater stage. He went with it on opening weekend, featuring local bands, raffles and more. But there hasn’t been much in the way of live festivities at the Liberty since then.

“First of all, we’re a movie theater,” Thornsley said. “We’re not a community center. We’re not a nonprofit.” He’s open to special proposals and live music, he said, but he’s skeptical.

The Liberty’s stage is too shallow for live entertainment. It used to go deep behind the curtain, he said, but after a fire in the 1990s a firewall was installed that shrank the stage; the hidden area behind the wall is storage now. Clues point to former dressing rooms, back in the day when the Liberty offered live vaudeville, but those have been eliminated across decades of change and remodeling, he said. (Wyatt said the same: he gets lots of requests to host bands, but the Kiggins isn’t set up for that.)

On the other hand, Thornsley did run a special pay-what-you-can showing of “A Place at the Table,” a documentary about hunger in America, in partnership with the Camas Farmer’s Market last month; this month it was a 50th anniversary screening of the uber-zany (yet G-rated) treasure hunt “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in conjunction with the downtown Classic Car Show.

Thornsley has worked with a company called SpectiCast to bring digital broadcasts of cultural events — live concerts, theater productions, opera, orchestras — to the Liberty screen. Turnout has been disappointing; for example, a two-day run of concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra drew a grand total of five theatergoers. “But they’re a great company to work with and we will try some more,” he said.

Meanwhile, first-run films tend to hit the Liberty four to six weeks after they’ve opened at the megaplex. Instead of paying $11 or so, you’ll only pay $4 in downtown Camas — or $3 on Tuesday bargain night; add a buck for any 3-D offering, which barely covers the cost of the new state-of-the-art technology that recently went into both Liberty rooms — the 348-seat main auditorium and the 26-seat Granada Studio, where there’s stadium seating and funkier offerings.

“Families who want to go out and see movies regularly are facing a pretty major expense,” Thornsley said. “We are aiming for fun, friendly, affordable.” All it takes is a little patience.

Like Wyatt at the Kiggins, Thornsley is patiently awaiting his license to serve alcohol. “I don’t think it’ll be as huge as a lot of people do,” said Thornsley. He figures on a 10 to 12 percent bump in his revenues each year over the next few years, as his food and drink service gets firmly established and customers develop new habits.

Thornsley, who came to Camas after managing theaters in Alaska and still does long-distance work for the Bear Tooth Theaterpub in Anchorage, said he came pretty close recently to opting out of his lease and shutting down the Liberty again. Instead, he convinced his landlords to keep up with the industry by investing in that state-of-the-art digital equipment.

“It’s a classy presentation,” he said. “We have all the same equipment you find at Cinetopia. Great sound, great picture.”

Living the dream

Don Griswold is the outlier and old-timer in this trio of local theater mavens. Ridgefield’s Old Liberty Theater has anchored his family’s life for the last 20 years. And if you ask him about the possibility of hosting your band there, he’ll at least hear you out — since live music is largely what happens at the Old Liberty.

“There’s nothing like live music. I think it’s important for humans,” Griswold said.

But he’s choosy. Griswold loves playing the role of heartfelt patron to underpaid, underappreciated musicians; the acts he books for the Old Liberty are “quality players who work really hard” and deserve better than the cramped corner between the bar and the door. He enjoys emceeing real concerts, he said, complete with green room, sound engineer, reasonably spacious stage, light show — and a guaranteed decent take for the band.

Tickets for most concerts at the Old Liberty are between $15 and $20; if you think that’s steep, Griswold suggests you think again. “Why is there this total disconnect between live music and what it’s worth?” he wondered. He hosts stellar local and regional players like bluesman Terry Robb, bluegrassy Misty River Band, film-noir rockers The Strange Tones and the classically unclassifiable 3-Leg Torso.

“World-class players who are basically unknown,” is how Griswold describes his favorite acts.

He hosts these marquee concerts only about once per month, he said, and not during summers when competition — outdoor festivals and fairs — is too fierce. Lower-profile private events — birthday parties and weddings, for example — underwrite the fine music and keep the place pretty busy all year round.

Rarely is there a movie at the Old Liberty. In fact, the place was barely a movie theater at all before Griswold came to town. Ridgefield’s original Liberty Theater was built in 1946 as a present from Sue and “Red” Hicks for their son, who was just back from the European theater of war — but the son died in a plane crash, and the theater never really came to life. Various businesses came and went until Griswold and his wife, Earleen, first rented and then bought the place outright, in 1995.

Griswold’s original vision for the place seems a little unlikely now: a martial arts studio. That didn’t work out, and neither did “Free Fri Sci-Fi,” screenings of public-domain science fiction flicks.

What did work out was a coffee shop and cafe in the lobby; many customers didn’t realize there was a trashed former movie theater behind the door that took years to renovate. Meanwhile, the Griswolds weren’t just spiffing up the interior, they were also raising a family onsite, in the apartments in the back of the building. They still live there.

“What if you had a building where you could live and work and raise your kids? That’s what we did here. We lived the dream,” said Griswold.

Making that dream pan out financially took more than running a coffeehouse and adding the theater; Griswold and his wife have also worked day jobs, from coffee roasting to staffing armored cars, on and off over the years. In recent months he’s talked to several impoverished local theater companies about renting the place for rehearsals and performances; one group has used the setting to film an Internet show that’s now hunting for an online home.

“It’s been 20 years of ups and downs,” he said. Now that their two daughters have graduated from high school, Griswold added, he and his wife are “definitely looking at the next chapter” — whatever that means.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits

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