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The Clyde marks 70th anniversary

The Clyde marks 70th anniversary

LANGLEY — For 70 years, a small theater has been showing big movies in the heart of Langley.

The Clyde celebrates its 70th birthday this month, 35 years under the ownership of Blake and Lynn Willeford.

“Why are we still here? I think part of it is geography,” Lynn Willeford said. “We’re the only theater on the South End. Going to the mainland is a lot more expensive,” she said.

But other factors play a role, too. The Clyde is a community institution, just like the Star Store or the Dog House.

“It’s a small town. The Clyde is like a small community center. People know we’re getting movies for them and we won’t rip them off,” Willeford said.

This recipe for success has worked for more than seven decades now.

Norm Clyde took a big risk when he built a movie theater on South Whidbey.

It was at the height of the Great Depression, but Clyde, a prominent Langley businessman, believed the community needed a showcase for films.

He hired an architect and builder, bought the best equipment available at the time and opened The Clyde Theatre to great fanfare in September 1937.

In fact, the opening of the new movie theater was front-page news that week in the Whidbey Record.

The Clydes ran the theater for many years, but eventually put it up for sale.

That’s when Blake Willeford stepped in at age 27 with long hair and wearing artsy hippie shirts.

Willeford had just arrived in Langley after three years with the Peace Corps in India, followed by slow travel home through Southeast Asia.

His aunt Margaret Kish, who worked in real estate, started pressing him to think about buying the theater.

It was 1972.

“I was 27 years old, just back from the Peace Corps,” Blake Willeford recalled. “My favorite aunt said, ‘Do I have a deal for you.’ My parents helped me with the down payment and I bought the place.”

It wasn’t instant success, though. Willeford camped out with a sleeping bag in the balcony to save on rent money and he worked construction jobs to pay the bills.

“It didn’t make much money,” he recalled.

But Willeford never looked back and never regretted buying the theater.

“People come to have a good time. It’s not like being a dentist,” he said.

Moviegoers are contented customers, too.

“If you have the film on the screen and the popcorn hot, they are happy,” he added.

And so, 35 years later, he and his family are still running the projectors, selling tickets, scooping popcorn and booking the movies.

However, Willeford warned that the movie business is not always glamourous.

“Being the projectionist is kind of boring,” Willeford said. “I call it hours of boredom with moments of panic.”

Blake and wife Lynn have now owned The Clyde longer than Norm and Hazel Clyde did, and look forward to being the “geezer doormen” till they die.

The future of The Clyde lies in the hands of the next generation; son Brook and his wife Wendi will be running the place.

“They’ll run it the same way we did,” Blake Willeford said.

People like how The Clyde shows top movies, but has a homey feel to it. The staff adds to that.

The “snack-bar ladies” often remember what the moviegoers favorites are, Willeford said.

There is comfort in familiar faces and there are a lot of them at The Clyde.

There have only been eight snack-bar ladies in more than 30 years, three of whom — Eve Carty, Emily Baker and the late Ethel Landers — worked at the theater for more than a decade.

Clyde projectionist Mark Dworkin has been with the theater since about 1973, despite having a doctorate’s degree and a thriving documentary film business. Ticket sellers Deon Matzen Baerg, Karen Grossman, Paul Samuelson and Brandon Henry have all been with the theater for one or two decades — but no one is really counting anymore.

During the celebration at The Clyde, the Willefords will give away passes and let people in for free for 10 days through Sept. 27, Lynn Willeford said.

Before each showing of the music documentary “Gypsy Caravan” (Sept. 18-20), they will draw ticket stubs to give away two free passes. Anyone born in 1937 will be given free admission to “The Bourne Identity” (Sept. 21-24). And six free passes will be given away again each night of the run of the British comedy “Death at a Funeral” (Sept. 25-27).

All these giveaways will hopefully ease the pain of the price rise that will be coming to The Clyde in October.

Starting Oct. 16, general admission at The Clyde will be $6 and those under 12 or over 65 will pay $4.

“We haven’t raised prices in seven years,” Lynn Willeford said. The studios are putting pressure on small theaters to raise prices.

“They are getting irritated with our low prices,” she added. “Every seven years, you have to raise the price.”

Even with new prices, The Clyde is below other movie ticket prices on the island and certainly below multiplex prices. Some might even say the fun and atmosphere at The Clyde is priceless.

More information about the Clyde, visit the theater’s Website www.theclyde.net.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarxwheatley@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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