John Solin stands in front of one of the theater rooms at Oak Harbor Cinemas. He has many plans for the theater. Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News-Times

John Solin stands in front of one of the theater rooms at Oak Harbor Cinemas. He has many plans for the theater. Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor Cinemas getting revamp under ‘new’ owners

Oak Harbor Cinemas is under new management. Or rather, the reins of the business have been returned to the original owner, John Solin, along with his business partner, Michel Gahard.

The duo has big plans to restore, remodel and modernize the little theater complex.

Changes include replacing the theater seats, offering beer and wine service, removing the lobby carpets to install a modern floor, changes to the concessions stand, new paint — and that’s just inside the building.

The parking lot will be spruced up as well, with a repaint of parking lines, potholes filled in, fresh paint for the building face and a digital marquee in place of the white and black lettered display that currently announces the movie showings.

They want to “make it look like there’s something going on,” Solin said of the outdoor changes that will give visitors their first impression of the cinema.

Far Away Entertainment operated the theater for over 15 years, continually renewing its lease. In April, however, its owners said they weren’t going to renew their five-year lease, which expired at the end of May, according to Solin.

Far Away Entertainment announced the news on social media post, stating “We’re writing to tell you goodbye! Unfortunately, we were unable to renegotiate our lease, so Friday, May 31 will be the last day Far Away Entertainment is operating Oak Harbor Cinemas.”

The company said that the building owners will continue to operate the theater and that longtime manager Rita LaBelle would continue in her position.

Far Away Entertainment also operates movie theaters in Anacortes, Stanwood and seven other sites in Western Washington.

They did not return a request for comment.

Solin built and opened the theater in the early 1980s, after the idea was tossed around by his co-workers at the office of his then-real estate job. The group said that the community needed a new movie theater, and Solin and his first business partner brought the idea to fruition. Solin eventually dove into the movie theater business full time, running theaters in several locations, including in ones in Mount Vernon and Eastern Washington.

Today, Oak Harbor is his only theater.

As for the long-term future, Solin said he and Gahard are open to offers from new people wanting to run the business.

Some changes he’s already put in place include a new point-of-service operating system, an update to the computers where workers sell tickets and snacks to visitors.

It’s already proved popular with theater workers, with a touch-screen system, snack scanner and ability to sell tickets and food quickly on one screen, which it couldn’t before.

“It’s any line, any time, anybody,” Solin said.

Some things that won’t be need to be changed are the sound and video equipment, Solin said — it’s the “latest and greatest.”

“The picture and sound are already first class,” he said.

He expects all the new upgrades to be finished by mid-October, before the holiday season.

Throughout the years, Solin said he’d heard stories from community members who made complaints or requests. As landlord, though, he had no control of the business operations or the ability to bring the changes he’s now working on.

He and LaBelle have thoughts on the direction the cinemas went, and conditions they’ve been in for years, and Solin is quick to emphasize that he wants the business to go in a new, better direction. He said he wants people to be excited about returning to the theater.

“It just needs to be done. It’s frustrating to see it run down,” Solin said. “We just hope the community will support us with these new changes coming.”

LaBelle said she is very excited for the future, after witnessing a downturn in business in past years.

“We just watched people leave, go off-island,” she said.

But now?

“I feel like its Christmas on steroids,” LaBelle said.

John Solin discusses an item on the screen of the theater’s new sales operating system. Worker Breilynn Schmidt said she’s found the new system easier and quicker to use, with a more colorful and intuitive screen. One feature she likes in particular is the barcode scanner, which is quicker to sell snacks with than the old system. Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News-Times

John Solin discusses an item on the screen of the theater’s new sales operating system. Worker Breilynn Schmidt said she’s found the new system easier and quicker to use, with a more colorful and intuitive screen. One feature she likes in particular is the barcode scanner, which is quicker to sell snacks with than the old system. Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News-Times

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