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Today the site is a sad, nondescript blacktop parking lot. But I remember the Empress Theater from my days kicking around downtown Spokane as a teen-ager — a long-shuttered movie theater that looked good enough on the outside that I wondered if someday it might be brought back to life. In the ‘70s, this was considered the seedy part of downtown, not far from the railroad tracks and the flophouses. The buildings themselves were magnificent but by that point many of them sat empty. About half of the buildings in this part of town have been demolished now, and have not been replaced — the Empress among them.
The Lincoln Heights was really one of those theaters that theater-lovers love to hate. An undistinguished shopping-mall ‘70s crackerbox palace designed on the cheap. I guess the only good thing I can say for it was that the soundproofing was all right, and you couldn’t hear the movie playing in the auditorium next door — more than could be said for most such places of the time.
Two memories stand out. I remember when “Pennies From Heaven” played there, and it is the only time in my life I have seen a theater manager address the audience before the show, announce that many people had been disappointed, and that if you left during the show you could get your money back. (And the irony is I think “Pennies From Heaven” is one of the best movies I’ve seen.)
The other is this. Spokane basically shut down the week after May 18, 1980, when Mt. St. Helens blew up. So much volcanic ash fell on the city that every business and every school shut down. Authorities warned everyone to stay inside and avoid breathing the gunk, and emergency surgical masks were distributed by the score.
After five days or so everyone in town had cabin fever, and finally, at long last, one theater in town opened its doors — the Lincoln Heights. I was there that night. The place was packed. I think only one movie was playing — something no one had ever heard of. A movie called “Friday the 13th.”
Yup, all in Spokane who dared to venture outside were treated to one of the nastiest, gnarliest slasher movies ever made. I still remember the way that audience screamed…
In the mid-‘80s I interviewed one of the surviving members of the Dishman family for the Spokesman-Review — and he told me a story that definitely didn’t make the paper. He said that when the Dishman Theater opened, the downtown theater owners went into a rage. There were quite a few theaters downtown, and this was the first Spokane-area theater to be built outside the central city. The newspaper (actually newspapers — the morning Review and the evening Chronicle were under the same ownership) was clearly aligned with the downtown interests. And at least at first, he said, the paper wouldn’t take advertising for the Dishman Theater. True? False? In an era when it has become easy to look at old newspapers online, I suppose it would be easy to check out the story, should any ambitious soul wish to try…
Certainly it wasn’t true in the mid-70s. Suburban sprawl had made the Valley an integral part of Spokane. The Dishman was a mainstream moviehouse, and its ads ran in the paper like any other. I remember seeing “American Graffiti” there, and “Man on a Swing,” and “The Sting.” But in 1975, I believe, ownership changed, and suddenly the Dishman went X-rated.
At one point a couple years later, when I was in high school, a friend of mine and I rode our bicycles out to the Valley, insisted to the bemused ticket-seller that we were 18, and caught a matinee double-bill of “Deep Throat” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” We sat there in shock. And then we giggled about it for weeks.
A previous poster was curious about the name. Obviously the theater took its name from its locale, the Dishman area, named for the family that was first to settle there. The big theater sign that spelled out the word “Dishman” was really a focal point for the community. Last I was in town, the building was still there, with the marquee intact. But the Dishman name had been replaced with neon-lit letters spelling the words Deja Vu — the name of the strip joint that at least at that point occupied the building.
By the mid-to-late ‘70s, when I was old enough to be aware of such things, the Auto-Vue was showing standard first-and-second-run features, usually with an action bent. I remember seeing “The Hot Rock,” “The Stone Killers,” “The Driver” and “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” there — just to name a few. Keep in mind, back in the ‘70s, many first-run movies never played the major moviehouses — there just weren’t enough screens in town — and drive-ins were the only place to catch movies like these.
The Auto-Vue was notable for several reasons. It had a wonderful marquee out by the highway, a neon-trimmed sign that took the shape of a streamlined fastback car, circa 1950. The screen was enclosed in metal in the rear, facing the highway, in a streamline moderne style.
But something else I remember clearly is the fact that the reel between the first and second features never, ever changed. After the trailers came 20 minutes of snack-bar advertising and reminders to turn off your headlights and promises to prosecute anyone stealing the in-car speakers, and the film was so old and so faded that none of the colors looked right. In fact, some of it was still in black-and-white. I saw that reel so many times I could recite half the ads the moment they came on-screen. In an age when the TV was showing ads about “the Pepsi Challenge,” the Auto-Vue was still showing ads from the early sixties touting “Pepsi — for those who think young.”
I always meant to get a picture of that lovely marquee — but by the time I moved back to Spokane in the mid-‘80s, the Auto-Vue was already gone.
I never got a chance to see a movie at the “Y” Drive-In, mainly because, by the late ‘70s, it was showing the kind of stuff no parent would ever take a kid to. But I certainly remember poring over the listings in the paper — movies like “The Naughty Stewardesses,” “The Swinging Stewardesses” — boy, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to see a movie at the “Y.” Alas, I never did.
I remember the Starlite Drive-In well — really my favorite of all the many drive-ins we had in the Spokane area in the 1970s. What made the Starlite great was its eclectic bookings. Instead of the first and second-run features that were shown at most of the drive-ins, or the somewhat naughtier movies that played at the nearby “Y” Drive-In, the Starlite featured triple-bills of early-sixties Roger Corman horror movies, or nights of nothing but cartoons, or science-fiction nights.
I still remember a night in the late ‘70s catching a double-bill of “When Worlds Collide” and “War of the Worlds.” Keep in mind these movies were 25 years old at that point. And just think — how many people in the late '70s, in a town like Spokane, would have understood that these two movies were linked by the fact that they were among the greatest films directed by George Pal? It was as if the Starlite was a repertory theater of the very greatest drive-in fare.
In the mid-‘80s, as Walt Hefner sold out for the (now-closed) Newport Cinemas, and I was working as a young reporter for the Spokesman-Review, I called him for an interview and met a guy who who clearly was in the exhibition business because he loved movies. I had to confess to him there was many a night, back in high school, when I shimmied up the trees behind the drive-in and watched from a perch on a high branch, trying to make out the sound from the far-off in-car speakers. And when my friends finally reached driving age, there had even been a time or two when several of us hid under blankets in the back seat to avoid paying admission at the gate. The Starlite was a special place, and I can’t blame Hefner for selling out — the drive-in was going the way of the do-do bird by 1985 — but Spokane lost something important when the Starlite closed.
Not much of the original theater remains, and I daresay that most of today’s Spokane residents would have little clue that the building was once a theater. When I moved to Spokane in the late ‘60s, the theater was still operating, under Walt Hefner’s management, as the “Cinema of Fine Arts.” I think the name was a bit of a joke — its standard fare was the sort of grindhouse flick that also played at the drive-ins around town. And yet it had one burst of greatness during that period. Not a single one of the major moviehouses in town was willing to touch “Easy Rider,” a rather controversial movie in its day — so it came instead to the Cinema of Fine Arts. The lines went down the block. I remember my parents expressing wonderment. How on earth did that tiny little theater wind up with one of the biggest movies of the year? And I remember, in the mid-'80s, interviewing Walt Hefner for the Spokesman-Review, who recalled the booking with a laugh, as a moment of triumph.
By the time I was old enough to explore downtown myself, in the early ‘70s, the theater was already closed. In the late '70s the building was remodeled; all the theater fittings were removed, and it became a Jay Jacobs clothing store. By the early '80s Jay Jacobs moved out and it became a restaurant, Rocky Rococo’s Pizza.
I’ve read somewhere that the Lindelle Block was demolished in 1963, which would make it one of the first major structures in downtown Spokane to be demolished and replaced with a parking lot. Its demolition was an important milestone in the disintegration of Spokane’s historic downtown core.
This is pretty crazy, all right. Bing went on a date with my grandmother, too! Turned out to be a fizzle. Years later, right about her 100th birthday, they named the theater for the guy. My grandmother always insisted on calling it the Clemmer.
A matter of family lore: In the 20s, when the Pantages was a vaudeville house, my grandfather, amateur boxing champ of Spokane, was drafted to fill in as sparring partner for Jack Dempsey. Boxed a round with the world heavyweight champion every night he was onstage that week. My grandfather minded his manners — he didn’t want to get the fellow angry.