Dan Wyatt teetered on a ladder against the billboard marquee of downtown Vancouver’s historic Kiggins Theatre. Letter by letter, he swapped the names of movies playing.
Ten years into his ownership of the Kiggins, Wyatt says updating the sign is his least favorite job. Week after week, he and his employees steady themselves to update the theater’s ever-changing menu with the full understanding that the business itself is in a precarious position.
People tell Wyatt wistful stories of watching movies at the theater and thank him for keeping it open. His reply? “Yeah, you’re welcome, but ticket buyers keep it open.”
Although its operation as a theater has proved to be a challenging business over the years, the Kiggins is “the main center of historic gravity on Main Street,” said Brad Richardson, director of the Clark County Historical Museum.
Entrepreneur and nine-term Vancouver mayor J.P. Kiggins opened his namesake theater on Main Street in 1936, five years before his death. Since then, the screen has gone dark for years at a time as ownership and management changed hands.
The heyday of the Kiggins was brief, ending even before installation of its signature marquee in 1958. The theater struggled long before a downtown multiplex opened in 1998. The nearby Broadway Theatre, which opened in 1947 and was torn down in 1982, nabbed the first-run films.
Vancouver residents may feel sentimental about the Kiggins, but that’s not enough to make it viable.
“Businesses need to sustain themselves,” Wyatt said. “It’s fine to have charity projects, but that’s just not good business.”
So he’s working hard to make operating the Kiggins Theatre pencil out.
“Dan Wyatt is incredibly passionate that the building doesn’t go away and continues to be a center for our community to gather and enjoy community events,” Richardson said. “He’s generous and wants to make sure this amazing historic theater succeeds.”
‘I love movies’
Wyatt, 48, watched movies at the Kiggins while growing up in the Salmon Creek area north of Vancouver. He vividly remembers attending a screening of 1984’s “Karate Kid” with his folks when a fight broke out. The theater showed second-run films to an often-unruly teen audience back then.
On a recent morning, Wyatt sat down in the Kiggins’ empty, freshly painted lobby to describe how his love of movies led him back to the theater at 1011 Main St.
“I love this experience so much. I want to give it to others. My original notion was to give it as a filmmaker,” Wyatt said. “This is really the only thing I could do here. I have to be involved in the movies somehow.”
He caught the film bug young and took video production classes at Columbia River High School before he graduated in 1992.
He attended Washington State University in Pullman, where he met his wife, Lori, also from Vancouver. They set off for Los Angeles, where he went to graduate school at Loyola Marymount.
“I bounced around, tried a lot of different things,” he said. “In film school, I was all geared up to be a DP — director of photography — because I loved shooting. But that wasn’t a very domestic lifestyle with call times at 3 a.m. and all that stuff. I found (film editing) was a little bit more sane, more 9-to-5.”
He’s most proud of his credit as assistant editor on the 2002 PBS documentary “Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman Documents” about a screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950s.
Heady stuff, but Wyatt admits that a big part of what excited him about that project was working for the man who had supervised editing on the TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“As a little geeky kid who grew up watching that, I was always pummeling him with questions,” Wyatt said.
After he and his wife had two sons, life in LA with their demanding jobs became untenable. This realization dawned on Wyatt one day when had to leave work to pick up a sick child from day care. His boss made it clear the job came first.
“It was a crossroads moment,” he said. “I called my folks and had tears on the phone.”
He and his family had to leave Los Angeles.
“It’s the land of dreams, which is why I was down there. I loved it,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t let it go lightly.”
‘Expensive calling card’
Wyatt and his family moved back to Vancouver in 2007. His wife landed a job at a Portland advertising firm, and Wyatt stayed home with the couple’s two children.
“I got a little stir-crazy,” Wyatt said.
In 2009, he bought the pop shop Moxie’s on Main. He took out loans and also approached his parents — Dan Wyatt Sr., founder of the Vancouver-based trucking company Atlantic and Pacific Freightways, and Janis Wyatt, a financial adviser — for backing. He renamed the shop Pop Culture.
“I thought kids need a hangout, so I built a stage and started hosting live music — whatever kid band wanted to come through and do a show,” Wyatt said. “It was a lot of work. I was kind of running a restaurant, which I had never done before. … The bands would come in at night, and then I was a venue manager.”
He sold Pop Culture three years later.
“It was never a huge moneymaker. But I had it to a sustainable point,” Wyatt said. “I always say that was my really expensive calling card-slash-education to get into the Kiggins.”
Bill Leigh, a commercial real-estate developer, had purchased the theater in 2008. Leigh undertook major restoration with help from volunteers and submitted an application to list the theater on the National Register of Historic Places.
Leigh, however, wasn’t interested in operating a theater over the long term. Wyatt took over the business in March 2012. Later that year, with backing from his parents, he purchased the building, which includes other storefronts. His company Kiggins Properties bought an adjoining L-shaped building in 2015, cementing his role as a key landlord in Vancouver’s revitalizing downtown.
Wyatt coaxed the Kiggins into profitability through a combination of off-beat movies, live events, corporate rentals and concessions.
“2019 finished really strong,” Wyatt said. “The irony is, February of ’20 was my best month, hands down, at that point.”
We all know what happened next. COVID-19 hit, and on March 16, 2020, the state shut down businesses to prevent spread of the virus.
“For 14 months, I was not allowed to do what this place is built to do,” Wyatt said. “The best we could do is sell popcorn on Fridays.”
Wyatt furloughed hourly employees but kept on full-time staff. The theater secured aid from federal pandemic assistance programs, including one aimed at shuttered venues, to stay afloat.
“The gas tank is going to run dry eventually,” Wyatt said. “We still need people to come back to the movies.”
In touch with history
During the pandemic shutdown, Wyatt and his remaining staff worked on projects that would be impossible during normal operations, like clearing out the attic and repainting. Visitors may notice the gradations of yellow on the walls of the staircase to the bar and restrooms on the second floor, the best approximation of how it originally looked, judging from black-and-white photographs, Wyatt said.
The Kiggins plays up its history, for example, offering monthly Noir Nights showing moody crime dramas from the 1940s and ’50s. In addition to movies, the Kiggins also frequently hosts events, including the annual CooperCon, where Washington State University Vancouver project Re-Imagined Radio and Wyatt staged his original radio drama about skyjacker D.B. Cooper.
The theater is home to the Clark County Historical Museum’s History on Tap talks as well.
“We don’t take any revenue off History on Tap. We want to support Dan in any way we can. We see it as part of our mission,” said Richardson, the museum’s director. “When you think of downtown Vancouver and you think of history, you think of the Kiggins.”
John P. Kiggins, who served as Vancouver mayor intermittently from 1909 to 1939, oversaw the construction of the theater and named it after himself. He hired noted local architect Day W. Hilborn for the Art Deco design, according to the theater’s National Historic Register paperwork. Hilborn’s imprint on Vancouver’s downtown also includes the Clark County Courthouse.
“The Kiggins operated continuously as a movie theater from 1936 to 1955. During World War II and immediately thereafter, the theater was well-patronized,” according to the historic registry filing. “Following the war and the passing of John Kiggins in 1941, the theater began a long cycle of shuttered operations, with a variety of management changes and fluctuating attendance. After WWII, theater operations across the country were forced to compete with television to provide entertainment.”
The competing amusement options of yesteryear foreshadowed what Wyatt confronts today — viewers streaming movies on demand at home, which became an ingrained habit during the pandemic. Already the Kiggins had a tough time acquiring rights to show movies with Regal City Center just a few blocks away.
That’s why Wyatt jumped at the chance to buy Vinnie’s Pizza across the street last year, which he renamed Bessolo Pizzeria after his mother’s family.
“I never thought, ‘Hey, I always wanted to run a restaurant,’ even a pizza restaurant. I just thought, ‘Wow, great opportunity,’ ” Wyatt said. “Pizza turned out to be COVID-proof. If it was any other place or location, I wouldn’t have done it. If it was any other kind of food, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I thought it was a nice pairing with the theater and would help with some sustainability here — dinner and a movie, all the cross-marketing promotion stuff.”
Wyatt has long planned to add a second, smaller screening room in space adjacent to the Kiggins. He points to the historic Liberty Theatre in Camas, which has two screens, offering flexibility for simultaneous events and movies.
With the pandemic upending not just theater operations but the whole movie industry, Wyatt put his second-screen plans on hold.
“Maybe a second screen isn’t in the stars,” he said. “My boss is the community. They buy tickets. … I’m just trying to do my best to get a film culture here. … I really strive to make this fun, inclusive, entertaining and escapist. That’s what movies are always about. Especially now, they’re more important than ever. It’s nice to take a break from the world.”