Jack Eccleshall makes popcorn at the theater for sale while it was still closed. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Jack Eccleshall makes popcorn at the theater for sale while it was still closed. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Edmonds Theater is a single-screen survivor

The iconic theater has endured since 1923, and is hanging on during the pandemic.

When it was still closed, Chris Mayes liked to slip into the Edmonds Theater and play one of his favorite flicks on the big screen.

His tastes run to old kung fu films and sci-fi thrillers, but whatever the selection, Mayes, the theater’s general manager, was the only one watching.

The century-old theater was closed from March to mid-October, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, Mayes visited the theater once a week to dim the lights and turn on the projector.

“I’m just trying to make sure the equipment is OK,” he said. “My concern is having the theater sit so long.”

This was the longest stretch the movie house had ever been shuttered. “We’re normally open 364 days a year,” he said.

Mayes missed everything about the theater — the crowds, the popcorn, the flickering stories that unfold onscreen.

“It’s kind of like a Christmas gift — standing in the back of the theater, seeing how everybody responds,” he said.

Like other movie houses, the theater currently can only accommodate 25% of its capacity — about 50 people. Right now, it’s open from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays for popcorn sales and a screening of favorites like “Hocus Pocus” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

The theater plans to resume showing first-run movies Thursday through Sunday on Nov. 25, Mayes said. The first new movie on the calendar is slated to be “The Croods: A New Age,” an animated picture featuring voice work by Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone and Nicolas Cage.

The Edmonds Theater is nearly as old as Hollywood’s movie industry. It was open only for popcorn sales on weekends, before movie theaters were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Edmonds Theater is nearly as old as Hollywood’s movie industry. It was open only for popcorn sales on weekends, before movie theaters were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

■ ■ ■

The Edmonds Theater is nearly as old as Hollywood itself.

The art deco theater played its first reel in 1923, less than a decade after Tinseltown became the capital of American moviemaking.

Until the 1930s or so, the Princess Theatre, as it was called back then, also hosted live vaudeville shows on a 35-foot-by-20-foot stage that’s still there, hidden behind the screen.

In the 1980s, Dr. Jacque Mayo bought the theater. Mayo died in 2009, but his family still owns it.

It’s a tense time for movie theaters everywhere.

In Washington, theaters will be limited to 25% capacity until their county enters Phase 3 — and even then, they have to keep their audiences at 50% capacity.

Some movie industry types wonder if moviegoers will ever return. Mayes is confident they’ll be back.

“Even the introverts are saying, ‘This is getting old,’” he said with a laugh.

The Edmonds Theater is a rarity, one of the Puget Sound region’s few independently owned single-screen movie houses still showing first-run films.

Attracting audiences in the digital age was an issue before the coronavirus had everyone holed up on their couches, Mayes said.

When you can pick only one movie for the marquee, it pays to know your town, Mayes said.

Edmonds audiences like “the big popcorn movies,” such as “Downton Abbey,” “Star Wars” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” he said.

“If there’s a good novel being filmed, I’ll try to book that,” he said.

In the winter and spring, the theater often features Oscar-nominated first-run films. Summers are family-friendly.

“At Christmas we like to have the big Disney picture,” Mayes said.

Singalongs also get top billing. Last year, audiences rocked the house with a Freddie Mercury-style “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong.

“As an indie theater, we have a little more leeway to do that kind of thing,” Mayes said.

On the third Thursday of the month, Throwback Thursday, the theater offers free showings of classic movies such as “Jaws,” the 1975 killer shark tale; “The Princess Bride,” the fantasy adventure comedy; and the ultimate head-spinner, “The Exorcist.”

But movies and film are only a part of its history.

The 235-seat theater has a stage behind the screen, from its days as a place to see vaudeville shows. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The 235-seat theater has a stage behind the screen, from its days as a place to see vaudeville shows. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

For decades, the 235-seat theater has been a venue for high school concerts, jazz festivals and political debates, and a town-gathering forum for discussions about gender, race and conformity.

The Diversity Film Series, sponsored by the Edmonds Center for the Arts and the Edmonds Diversity Commission, has screened documentaries including “13th,” about the legacy of slavery in America; “Lioness,” which profiles the first group of U.S. female soldiers to be sent into combat; and “The Fat Boy Chronicles,” about the triumphs of a bullied, overweight teen.

“That’s one of the reasons, the theater has survived — it’s been a community place,” Mayes said.

Not many independent theaters survive. In the last decade, Seattle has lost several.

The Harvard Exit Theatre, a fixture in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood since 1969, closed in 2015. Two years later, The Guild 45th in the Wallingford neighborhood and The Seven Gables Theater in the University District shut their doors.

In Edmonds, Mayes said the owners are committed to finding a way to keep the theater going.

In September, the Edmonds Theater propped open its doors on weekends for movie popcorn sales only.

Fans were delighted.

“I picked up a jumbo bag on Saturday and kept my mask on to walk the 10-minute walk home before eating any,” Barbara J. Rood wrote on Facebook. “Thanks to the chilly fog, the popcorn wasn’t crispy anymore, but still tasted great. I ate every bit of it!”

“Love popcorn & proud to support your business,” another Facebook admirer, Cynthia Engel, wrote.

“No better way to save the world than popcorn,” declared the Edmonds Happy Hour’s Facebook page.

Before the pandemic, the plan was to remodel the snack bar, add a hot dog cart and serve beer and wine.

That’s still the plan, Mayes said resolutely.

During the long closure, he’s prepared for the day the theater can reopen.

“We want to be ready to go as quickly as possible,” Mayes said.

There’s another reason Mayes likes to fire up the projector once a week — to keep the purported phantoms company.

Some say the 97-year-old theater is haunted by two ghosts: a cowboy who looks as if he stepped out of a 1950s Western and a ticket-taker from the 1930s.

Mayes has never bumped into either, but several employees say they’ve caught a glimpse or have heard voices in the balcony long after the final show has let out.

“It’s another reason I want to go there — so they don’t get lonely,” he said.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the fall/winter issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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