80 years of Kiggins Theatre

Vancouver’s historic movie house celebrates with trip down memory lane

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

IF YOU GO

• What: Kiggins Theatre’s 80th birthday celebration.

• Featuring: Street party, live music, beer garden, complementary 1930s hair and makeup.

• Where: 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

• Cost: Free; beer garden is $5 admission and $4 pints.

Today’s movies, ticket packages:

• 2 p.m.: “Swing Time,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; $8.

• 4 p.m.: “Modern Times,” starring Charlie Chaplin; $19.36 includes popcorn and pop.

• 6 p.m. Kiggins talk, 6:30 p.m. movie: “She Married Her Boss,” starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas; $80 for 21 and up only, includes all movies, beer garden, unlimited popcorn and pop, cocktail and dessert, swag bag.

Fantastic movie palaces with vast screens have mostly surrendered to clusters of tight, anonymous boxes featuring steep “stadium seating.”

But the historic Kiggins Theatre keeps firing up its big old marquee, selling tickets from its classic freestanding box office and welcoming cinema lovers into its spacious 340-seat auditorium. The place first opened its doors, dimmed its lights and cranked up its projector exactly 80 years ago — on April 24, 1936.

Today, everyone is invited to celebrate eight decades of movies and memories at Vancouver’s signature, surviving movie palace. The Kiggins will revive the “Golden Age of Hollywood” with vintage big-band music, complementary 1930s-style hair and makeup services and — since national Prohibition was repealed in 1933 — a completely legal beer garden. The Kiggins’ Main Street block will be closed to cars and opened to pedestrians starting at noon. The party is free, but admission to the beer garden is $5.

“It’s going to be one classy party,” owner Dan Wyatt promised. (Bad weather will only mean “tents, tents and more tents,” he added.)

Meanwhile, movies born the same year as the Kiggins will screen indoors, for progressively higher prices and fancier packages as the day goes by. “Swing Time” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is first, at 2 p.m., for $8; next, Charlie Chaplin endures the machinery of “Modern Times” at 4 p.m. for $19.36 (the year being 1936, get it?), including pop and popcorn.

But if you feel like making a day of it, check out the $80 package: beer garden admission, both afternoon movies with unlimited popcorn and pop, specialty cocktail, hors d’oeuvres and desserts, swag bag — and a screening of the first flick ever shown at the Kiggins: “She Married Her Boss,” starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas.

Eighty bucks is one classy price, Wyatt acknowledged, but there’s a reason for that: to continue the renovations and upgrades that he and other recent owners have been managed by hook and by crook. The auditorium has gotten lots of paid and volunteer TLC, and a Kickstarter (“Kiggstarter”) campaign successfully scored a new digital projector — but the front doors, lobby and box office are increasingly overdue, Wyatt said.

“We want to give her a face-lift,” said Wyatt, who added that he thinks of the Kiggins as a ship, and himself the captain — not the owner, just a guy who’s been entrusted with her for a time.

Wyatt has an even grander dream for the S.S. Kiggins: If the current wedge-shaped marquee could be replaced with a bigger, rectangular, historically accurate one, maybe that could double as an outdoor veranda accessed via the upstairs lounge. Wouldn’t it be splendid to enjoy pre-movie drinks while surveying Main Street from up in the air on warm summer evenings?

Wyatt said he visited another lovely movie palace recently — the Venetian, in Hillsboro, Ore. — and came down with acute “balcony envy.”

New Day

Vancouver mayor and entrepreneur J.P. Kiggins, who spent decades developing businesses and buildings here, reportedly had a big vision and an ever-bigger ego. He named his first downtown cinema The Castle. He named his second for something even greater: himself.

Kiggins’ architect was Day Hilborn, who designed many dozens of Clark County homes, buildings and facilities that still stand today. But it’s this Main Street movie theater that first landed Hilborn on the National Registry of Historic Places, in 2011.

Andrew Gregg, a former chair of the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission, has written that the Kiggins was considered an architectural “gem” for its simplicity and modernity from the moment it opened. Unlike the stereotypically garish movie houses of its day, the concrete Kiggins was sleek, sturdy and functionally beautiful. Details like interior mahogany trimmings and exterior sandblasted sculptural reliefs were subtle, not screaming. If anything demanded attention, it was that marquee with its glowing neon tubing and incandescent bulbs flashing in classic “chaser” sequence. (There was an attention-grabbing ceiling mural too, but that’s been lost to water damage.)

Matilda Baran was 19 years old when she attended the Kiggins’ opening in 1936. Seventy-six years later, in 2012, Wyatt videotaped her recalling what she could about that special night: glitz and glamour and a ribbon-cutting by Mayor Kiggins himself. In the midst of the Great Depression, Baran said, visiting the new theater “was like being in another world.”

Cheap tickets

And then — just like a Hollywood flash-forward — years went by. The place repeatedly changed hands. It suffered fire and water damage. It closed and opened and closed again. For a time it was a church. Eventually, the rise of the megaplex bumped the Kiggins back from popular first-run features to cheap second-run leftovers.

Gregg remembers the Kiggins of his childhood as “a foreboding place.” Wyatt remembers coming here and watching a fistfight erupt. He and his parents fled but the fight spilled after them into the lobby, where a priest tried to break it up — and was rewarded with his own broken foot, Wyatt said. (What movie was that? “The Karate Kid.” Maybe the combat was an energetically positive review.)

“Squalid” and “disgusting” is how Leah Jackson, who owns the next-door wine bar, Niche, described the deteriorating building that she toured a few years ago with then-owner Bill Leigh, a local developer with a passion for historic restorations. Leigh poured money and vision into the Kiggins — along with early political lobbying in the state Legislature for what came to be called the “Kiggins bill,” allowing the theater to sell beer and wine, and allowing those drinks beyond the lounge and into the auditorium.

Meanwhile, movie lover Dan Wyatt returned to his hometown after a decade working in the film industry. “I jokingly said to my wife that managing the Kiggins is probably the only job I’m suited for,” he said. But first, he spent three years operating a teen club called Pop Culture in Uptown Village. That’s where Leigh walked in and found him one day, and offered to sell.

“No way” was Wyatt’s gut reaction. But the fantasy took root, buoyed by supporters like Jackson and a favorable deal from Leigh. It took some time, but Wyatt moved from managing to buying the Kiggins (and much of the real estate on its block).

Today, Wyatt is still seeking the formula for success. He’s raised the profile and reputation of the place by getting creative and community-focused — hosting talk shows and meetings, comedy nights, anniversary screenings, classical concerts, red-carpet Oscar parties and simulcasts from London of everything from Shakespeare to “Dr. Who” — as well as offbeat films you won’t find at Regal.

“Dan has done wonders,” said Gregg. “The Kiggins is far, far more community-minded than ever before.”

But that sort of programming remains a compromise. Michael Moore’s latest documentary will never sell as much popcorn as “Batman v Superman,” Wyatt said. People like the idea of the historic Kiggins more than they actually show up for movies there, he said.

Haunted, of course

The Kiggins is a grand old place, but turn off the lights and what is it now? Haunted, of course. How could it not be?

“It is a very weird building,” said current staffer Karyssa Wolfe. Wolfe said she’s felt “not alone” when absolutely alone at the Kiggins.

In 1999, when former manager Gary Hubbard had worked here for just two years, he told The Columbian he was convinced that at least one spirit was walking the halls and even through the walls. The film projector would flick on and off by itself, he said. And, Hubbard and his staff would occasionally see a shadowy figure get up to leave the auditorium — but vanish before reaching the exit door.

“There were just too many weird things happening,” he said in 1999.

But Bettyan Howard, who worked at the Kiggins for 31 years before Hubbard, told The Columbian she never experienced anything strange, and chalked up Hubbard’s spooks to “a vivid imagination.” Wyatt, who has spent lots of solo, overnight time at the Kiggins, said he’s only ever “psyched myself out” with creaks and shadows. As if in a movie.

Wyatt even confessed that he’s pulled pranks on staffers who thought they were alone: making noises, flipping switches, generating mysterious phone calls that seem to come from inside the building — because they actually do.

We prefer not to dig into this mystery any more. She’s 80 years old and her future looks promising. Here’s to the ghosts of her great past.