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Historic theater burns

The future of an 85-year-old theater building is unknown after sustaining damage from a fire.

A fire broke out early Monday morning at an empty movie theater on Pioneer Way in downtown Oak Harbor. The theater, which has been vacant for years, was undergoing renovations.

The blaze started sometime early Monday morning in the auditorium of the abandoned theater.

Ray Merrill, battalion chief for the Oak Harbor Fire Department, said the fire was slow moving. The fire had burned for several hours before smoke started billowing out of the building.

He said several city workers called in the fire at approximately 7:15 a.m. when they noticed the smoke.

They weren’t the only ones who noticed the fire.

“Smoke was coming out of the tiles,” said Tyler Deyo, a management trainee at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, describing the smoke pouring out of the side of the building.

Rick and Cheryl Rennebohm noticed the smoke from their home across the harbor on Scenic Heights Road. Since they owned the adjacent building, they came to see if their property was OK.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze in about 20 minutes.

Merrill described the damage as extensive. The fire burned the support beams under the building. He didn’t say the building was a total loss, but it would take a lot of money to fix it.

Even though Merrill knew where it started, he couldn’t say what caused the fire. That is still under investigation. Officials are tracking down and talking to people who were in the building before the fire started.

In addition to firefighters from the Oak Harbor Fire Department, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue and NAS Whidbey also responded.

The building’s owner, Kristi Jensen, would not comment on the incident.

The theater, which was built in 1920, originally looked different than the plain yellow, metal front that is seen today.

When it opened in July 1920, the front of the theater featured a castle-like facade. It was built by Howard and Bessie Maylor, according to Peggy Darst, a local historian and writer who recently produced a book documenting a pictorial history of the area.

The theater originally featured silent movies complete with a live organ player who accompanied shows back when the theater was known as “The Oaks,” Darst said.

By the time Darst started watching movies when she was little, Bob Tull ran the theater.

It isn’t clear when the theater shut down or how long it has been vacant. Some people have said the building has been vacant for 12 to 15 years and, at one time, it was a record store.

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