Arts and Entertainment

Clyde Theatre celebrates a community legacy

Blake Willeford holds up an old reel from before the Clyde Theatre went digital in December 2011. He and wife Lynn Willeford, the owners of the Clyde Theatre, sit in a pair of the original chairs, which have since been replaced. - Rebecca Olson / The Record
Blake Willeford holds up an old reel from before the Clyde Theatre went digital in December 2011. He and wife Lynn Willeford, the owners of the Clyde Theatre, sit in a pair of the original chairs, which have since been replaced.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / The Record

The first step into the Clyde Theatre in Langley yields a nose full of the scent of popcorn, whether a movie is playing or not. Blue velvet curtains darken the entrance to the theater, where rows of chairs face a screen that has reflected movies from “Gone With the Wind” to “The Bourne Legacy” and thousands in between over the past 75 years.

When the Clyde Theatre opened in 1937, the first movie to show, “You Can’t Have Everything,” starring Don Ameche, cost 25 cents to attend. While the prices have changed since then, the Clyde’s place as the center of a community has not.

The Clyde is celebrating its 75th birthday with a party beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16. Head to the Clyde in downtown Langley from 1 to 3 p.m. to see a compilation of historical videos, a slideshow and a video of the performances done at the theater over the years created by Blake Willeford, who owns the theater with his wife, Lynn Willeford.

Western Heroes will provide music for a street dance from 3 to 4:30 p.m., in front of the Clyde. Free pop and popcorn are provided — as long as you get out and dance, Blake said.

After the dance at 5 and 7:30 p.m., the Clyde will show its regular movies.

“All Clyde patrons are invited,” Lynn said.

Norman and Hazel Clyde built the theater in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression. Blake bought it in 1972, and he and Lynn said they plan to keep managing the Clyde until they die, when their son, Brook, will take over.

“So it’s been like a front row seat to the community for years, from the days when Hazel Clyde used to drive around picking up kids for the Saturday matinee all over the island,” Lynn said, adding that now, the Willefords are seeing second and even third generations patronize the theater.

“We kind of delight in telling kids how their parents acted at the movies in the old days,” Lynn laughed.

But interacting with today’s youths is no laughing matter for the Willefords. They take responsibility for teaching youths how to behave in the community by pulling them aside and talking to those who need it, Blake said, adding that they even befriend many of the attention-hungry youths.

“We’ve always wanted it to be a part of the community,” Blake said of the Clyde. They try to choose movies that will please Langley’s unique audience.

“It’s an eclectic community so we need to have an eclectic program,” Lynn said, adding that when she hears an equal number of complaints that the Clyde shows too many independent movies or too many Hollywood movies, she knows they’re doing just right.

The Clyde shows 110 to 120 movies per year.

“So multiply that by 40 years and that’s how many movies Blake and I have seen,” Lynn laughed. She and Blake met after Blake purchased the theater and Lynn worked there as a sweeper. She “swept” her way to the top, Blake joked.

At the entrance to the theater is the snack stand, gleaming with shiny candy wrappers and smelling of popcorn.

“We’re pretty sure this is the highest grossing per square foot place in Langley,” Blake laughed, gesturing at the 3 feet-by-3 feet snack stand.

Magic Change Jar

A special part of the stand is the Magic Change Jar, where patrons can make their change magically multiply for good causes. The Willefords match the amount of change in the jar, and Island Athletic Club and Lindsay Communica tions also match the money, then the amount is donated to a community cause. The current recipient is the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. They recently donated $1,300 to the Readiness to Learn Foundation’s Back-to-School drive.

The Clyde has a long history of community service. It raised $8,600 in one night for victims of Hurricane Katrina and raised $16,000 for phone cards for soldiers in Iraq at the beginning of the war.

“It’s not like we’re doing anything unusual for here,” Lynn said, adding that the community is very generous and members often volunteer to match donations.

What makes the Willefords unique is all the fun they have helping their community. Recently, they held a ladies night at the Clyde and showed the movie “Magic Mike.” As a rare treat, the women were allowed to “hoot and holler” during the film, Lynn said. Then she sent Blake around the theater with the Magic Change Jar for donations. Lynn told them that since they couldn’t give bills to the movie’s starring actor Matthew McConaughey, they could put it in the jar for a good cause.

“We had women all over the theater waving money in the air,” Lynn laughed. In 10 minutes, they collected a few hundred dollars — mostly in ones, Lynn said.

Another can also holds the history of the Clyde. Now covered in rubber bands, the old can that was originally used to collect ticket earnings is still in use.

“We don’t know how much money went through that can…. It got misplaced the other night and we cared less about the money than about the can,” Blake said.

The theater staff has also remained the same for years. Kären Grossman has been selling tickets every Thursday night for the past 35 years with free popcorn and movies as her pay.

“All the ticket sellers just do it for the love of it,” Grossman said, adding that she’s done this for longer than anything else in her life and has always loved the community aspect.

With fond memories too numerous to count, Grossman picked one Halloween as her favorite moment. Thirty years ago, when Halloween would fall on a work night, Grossman said she loved it “because so many people in the town at that time would get dressed up, whether they were going to the Clyde or going to the Doghouse to play pool.”

The only employee who’s been at the Clyde longer than Grossman is projectionist and documentarian Mark Dworkin, who has worked there for 40 years.

Changes

The theater has seen many improvements over the years, from new drapery in the 1980s to seismic retrofitting in the 1990s. When the Willefords replaced the chairs and offered the old ones to the community, “people were fighting over the chairs,” Lynn said. A few old rows of Clyde chairs can still be seen around Langley.

The room that has seen the hugest changes is the projection room. The Willefords funded the weighty cost of switching from film to digital in December 2011. Lynn recalled giving away pieces of film as bookmarks and community members’ excitement as they held pieces to the light in search of a strip with George Clooney or a cartoon. Now, the empty reels sit on the stage behind the movie screen, alongside the colossal projection equipment.

Without that equipment, the projection room is like a mansion for Blake. He was able to fit a desk and comfy chair beside the server. Instead of changing reels by hand, Blake simply plugs a hard drive containing the movie into the server and he can set up timing and previews on a computer. He doesn’t even have to be in the booth for the movie to start and stop. No more scratched films, no more broken film flooding the projection booth and no more work to get incorrectly marked reels back in order by the length of the actor’s beard — something the Willefords had to do for “Enemy Mine,” starring Dennis Quaid.

“So my work here has been greatly diminished,” Blake said. “Now if something goes wrong, there isn’t a lot to do: reboot.”

The switch also makes it easier to transform the movie screen into a stage for speakers and PowerPoint presentations. A stage expansion can be added and the movie screen can be raised, opening the theater for live performances. Martha Murphy, founding director of Whidbey Childrens Theater, started the theater on the Clyde’s stage in 1982 and remained there until 2005.

“I always felt like the Clyde was like an extension of our homes. It felt like being at home being on the stage at the Clyde. Everybody loved being there,” Murphy said, adding that she applauds the Willefords for maintaining the historical integrity of the theater.

“I think of Langley as a theater town and that is completely because of the access given early on by Lynn and Blake to do live theater on the stage,” Murphy said. “Going to a movie at the Clyde Theatre is one of the great experiences of living on South Whidbey.”

“It’s a fun business, we have a good time,” Blake said. “It’s not like being a dentist.”

“Part of what’s important about the Clyde is it is still small and family owned. There’s a personal connection with Lynn and Blake and people who work there,” Grossman said. “It’s just such a comfy place to be, whether you’re by yourself — a lot of people come alone and you can visit with your friends and neighbors.”

“If people really care about the Clyde and having it there, at least if everybody went to a movie once a month on the South End, the Clyde would probably be there forever, too,” Grossman said.

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