Seventy-five years later, the Clyde is still the picture of health

Blake Willeford remembers the day astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson stopped by the Clyde Theatre in downtown Langley to take in a movie. As the famous astronomer, who in his NASA career logged more than 400 hours in space, was fumbling to come up with the right change for a ticket, Willeford said he attempted to expedite the process.

The Clyde Theatre and Norman Clyde Motors on First Street in downtown Langley in 1937

About the series

Each Wednesday in May, the Record will publish a look back at Langley landmarks in a series researched by Linda Beeman, vice chairwoman of the Langley Historic Preservation Commission.

The series is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s seventh annual National Preservation Month.

Blake Willeford remembers the day astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson stopped by the Clyde Theatre in downtown Langley to take in a movie.

As the famous astronomer, who in his NASA career logged more than 400 hours in space, was fumbling to come up with the right change for a ticket, Willeford said he attempted to expedite the process.

“I said ‘C’mon, Pinky — it isn’t rocket science.’”

It is one of many pleasant memories of the years since 1972, when Willeford bought the Clyde, one of Langley’s most prominent historic buildings.

“I’m glad I did it,” he said, “but it was a scary decision at the time. I had no experience and no idea how I’d make it work.”

According to researcher Linda Beeman of the Langley Historic Preservation Commission, the Clyde Theatre is a local institution.

Norman and Hazel Clyde built it in 1937, 10 years after coming to Whidbey Island from Texas on their honeymoon to visit his father, and deciding to stay.

The Clydes established themselves in the Sandy Point area along what is now Clyde Road. Norman built many of Langley’s first buildings, including the theater and the adjacent Clyde Motors — now Mike’s Place.

Later, he drove the school bus, and served as town marshal and county sheriff’s deputy.

“You Can’t Have Everything,” starring Don Ameche, was the first movie to be shown at the Clyde, on Sept. 16, 1937.

Norman’s stepson Richard Clyde, 86, who still lives near Sandy Point, said he was put to work at the Clyde when he was in the eighth grade.

“There was nothing romantic about the Clyde for Richard Clyde,” he said. “I remember running the projector in the hotbox four nights a week, and mopping the floors.”

Clyde said he worked at the theater until joining the Navy during World War II. When the war was over, he returned to Langley and worked at the Clyde for another eight years, before leasing the garage next door.

“I didn’t watch the movies,” he said. “I was too busy running film through the projector.” And he hasn’t seen a movie since.

“I was burned out on movies,” he said. “Anyway, by then we had TV.”

Beeman said Norman and Hazel Clyde continued to operate the theater through the 1960s, although it was closed intermittently due to vandalism and “bad behavior.” The Clydes later leased the theater to local Peoples Bank manager Dave Upham, who showed films on weekends for a year or two.

In 1972 Willeford, returning from the Peace Corps in India, was persuaded by his aunt, real estate agent Margaret Kish, to buy the theater.

“She said, ‘Have I got a deal for you,’” Willeford said. “I’d always liked movies, and I wanted to live on South Whidbey.”

He paid $22,500 for the Clyde, assuming mortgage payments of $153 per month.

“That was really scary,” Willeford said. “I was making two bucks an hour at the time.”

“But I thought I could always move into the balcony with a hot plate if things got really bad,” he added.

Initially, he experimented with foreign and art movies, adding a Shakespeare festival one winter. Local artists created quarterly calendars that continued to paper local refrigerators until they were discontinued last year.

Willeford added a stage for music and theatrical performances. It was the home for Island Theatre, FOOLS and Whidbey Children’s Theater for many years. Scores of local school children got their first taste of the limelight in productions staged there.

In 1978, Blake married his Sunday ticket seller, Lynn Murray, who redid the interior and exterior color schemes. The stars spilling down the front of the building were added in 1987 as part of the theater’s 50th anniversary.

The building was seismically retrofitted in 1992. Sound and projection systems were upgraded, and more comfortable seats were installed in 2002.

Through the years, Willeford ran the projectors most of the time, and continues to do so today.

“I call the job of projectionist hours of boredom punctuated by moments of panic,” he said.

Next year, the Clyde celebrates its 75th anniversary and the 40th year of Blake Willeford’s ownership.

“I’m glad I did it,” Willeford said. “It has a nice community vibe. If the popcorn is hot and there’s a movie on the screen, people are generally happy. It’s not like being a dentist.”

Lynn Willeford agrees.

“It’s been a wonderful way to make a living,” she said. “Three generations have come through the door. There’s nothing more fun than telling a 6-year-old, ‘I remember when I had to throw your dad out for talking too much.’”

“Sadly, we’re a dying breed,” she added. “But movies are alive and well on Whidbey.”

The Willefords said their son, Brook, plans to take over the theater when they retire.

“We’ll be the geezer greeters,” Blake Willeford said. “At that point, we’ll demand name tags.”

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