Whidbey Cinema building razed

From a sultry Kim Novak floating unconscious in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, to a sinewy Charlton Heston overacting as he battles highly-evolved apes, the spirits of celluloid persona have become fixtures in the old Whidbey Cinema building over the last three-quarters of a century.

The ghosts will now will have to either relocate or learn to adapt to modernity.

Abatement and demolition crews from Everett set up camp outside the Pioneer Way structure Thursday morning. By mid-afternoon, the building was fully razed and the wooden entrails were being loaded into a steel container for transport. Owner Kristi Jensen reportedly plans to have a mixed-use building constructed on the site.

The building, which has been vacant for years, was severely hobbled last April when an early morning fire went unobserved for hours and scorched the building. Extensive damage, including burnt support beams under the structure, did not total out the building, but Ray Merrill, Oak Harbor Fire Department battalion chief, said at the time renovation would be an expensive undertaking.

The future of the longtime theater remained a looming question mark until Thursday. Although details of Jensen’s new building were not available, the demolition made it clear that her plans did not include using the existing structure.

Howard and Bessie Maylor built the theater in 1929, according to county recordings. Memories of the Maylor years, when sound made its debut in what was then called the Oak Theater, are sketchy.

“My dad used to take me there when I was 8 or 9 years old. Howard and Bessie also had a grocery store,” said Wes Maylor, whose grandfather was Howard’s brother.

The theater’s heyday appears to have come in the 1970s when newly-retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Tull and his wife Anna purchased the idle business and turned it into a family — and community — affair.

With nine children, eight of whom graduated from college, Tull used the theater to keep track of his progeny and help them build savings accounts.

“Most of my brothers and sisters worked there for some length of time,” said Patty Cohick, the oldest sibling. “My mom sold tickets and my dad greeted everyone.”

The busy couple also ran a realty company and a motel.

A significant facelift and a new name resurrected the theater. Other than the Navy movie house, Whidbey Cinema was the only show in town.

“We had double reels that had to be changed manually,” Cohick said. “It was really kind of the end of an era.”

Chuck Tull would make the trek from the University of Washington on weekends to work at the theater. The “end of the era” referred to by his sister resonated with the Gonzaga Law School graduate. He remembers his late father cultivating a moviegoing experience that melded social interaction with cinema magic.

“It was almost a throwback to an even older era,” Tull said.

It was not uncommon to find sailors purchasing tickets that they barely used, instead choosing to chew the fat with Robert and Anna in the lobby.

“They loved to talk to people,” he said. “It was much more than just the flicks, it was a piece of home. Being retired military and having moved around a lot, my parents were certainly empathetic to the plight of the 18- to 22-year-olds. They had a mom and dad they could talk to, if only for a few hours.”

Saturday matinees translated to free daycare, Tull said with a laugh. Robert would introduce the movie, lay down the ground rules and turn the kids loose.

“He made it a fun thing,” he said.

“The kids used to line up around the block for matinees,” Cohick added.

Both Tull and his sister remember their father raffling off a pony. Each child purchasing a ticket to the matinee would be entered in the drawing.

“My family had the pony and I think my dad just wanted to get rid of it,” Tull said. “One of my sisters would ride the pony down and the kids would sit on it. I think the first family that won the pony gave it back and we raffled it again.”

According to county records, the Pioneer Way building changed hands between 10 and 15 times during its long Oak Harbor history. And its business uses have been every color of the rainbow.

“In high school I remember it showed X-rated movies for a few months,” Tull said. A music store was also said to occupy the space for a short time.

Whidbey Cinema continues to live on in the memories of residents who spent lazy Saturday afternoons at the theater watching Lee Marvin take an unlikely turn as a singing gold prospector.

“It was a hometown icon, much more than just a theater,” Tull said.

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