There’s no butter for the popcorn or ice for the drinks at this movie theater.
That doesn’t stop people from lining up on the sidewalk for a show at The Clyde Theatre, as they have since 1937.
What’s up with that?
The movie house on First Street is a Langley landmark.
The teal blue building with rose trim has one screen, a single sloped aisle down the middle and a small balcony. Regulars have their usual seats, so if someone looks at you funny, there’s a reason.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for youth, free for under 7. One show a night, seven days a week. Most are PG or PG-13.
Unsupervised minors need a permission slip signed by a parent to see an R-rated movie, and chances are the person selling the ticket will know the parent.
“A lot of folks here grew up coming here,” proprietor Brook Willeford said. “They have a lot of great memories.”
The Clyde is Willeford’s second home. His parents, Blake and Lynn, ran the theater for decades. His mother died in 2021. Father and son now take turns running the show with the help of a snack bar worker and a ticket seller.
“My dad and I are the hosts,” Willeford said.
On the snack counter, a glass jar dubbed the Magic Change Jar collects donations that are matched by five businesses for local charities Lynn started or supported. About $7,000 is raised annually.
“The Clyde is an extension of my mom’s ethos of being part of the community, being engaged with the community,” said Willeford, 41, a full-time dad and South Whidbey School District board member.
The theater seats 250, which is one-fifth of the population of Langley. Back in the days before cineplexes, many towns had mom-and-pop movie theaters. For islanders, it’s either Langley or 40 miles away in the big city of Oak Harbor.
According to the National Association of Theater Owners, there were about 5,798 movie theaters in 2020, down from 7,744 in 1995. Many are chains.
The Clyde is still rebounding after being closed for a year during the pandemic. When it reopened in 2021, the mask mandate remained longer than the state required.
“Almost every night we had someone thanking us for it,” Willeford said. “We did have a few people complain. I got called a Communist and a Fascist by the same person on the same night. As a historian of modern European history I can tell you that it’s impossible to be both.”
Masks, now optional, are worn by staff and about half of the patrons. Alternating rows are still taped off for social distancing, limiting seating to about 120. It means less income for sold-out shows, as was the case for the two-week run of “Top Gun: Maverick” in June. So be it.
“The majority of our audience feels much more comfortable,” Willeford said.
The shows target the demographics.
“It’s finding those movies that appeal to our particular audience rather than audiences across the country,” he said. “They like music movies, movies about travel, movies that are just fun. More than half of our audience are seniors.”
“Elvis” is back in the building. The flick starring Tom Hanks was such a hit in early July that it returned for an encore this week. “A Love Song” starts Friday. Then “Top Gun: Maverick” returns for five days over Labor Day Weekend.
Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 7:30 show.
At 6:30, first in line for opening night of “Elvis” for the July debut was Carol Doering’s party of five. The regulars from Clinton have their favorite row because of the slant.
“It is offset from the other rows. You are not disturbed by people’s heads,” Doering said.
Not far behind them was Mia Doll, 15, of Langley, joined by several friends for a night at The Clyde.
“I like how small it is. It fits the town’s personality and aesthetics. It’s very cool,” she said. “I go ham on some popcorn.”
The aroma of popping corn is intoxicating, even without the butter.
For Willeford, the hour before showtime is nonstop action. He runs up the narrow stairs multiple times to the balcony and projection booth. He wheels a patron’s bicycle through the cramped lobby and down the aisle to a backstage area for safekeeping.
Floor space is tight. Willeford squeezes behind the snack bar to help — handing over Whoppers, pouring Diet Cokes and bagging popcorn — when the line gets ridiculously long.
As for the lack of ice and butter: Prepping ice and hot butter would take too much room and time. And besides, that oily “butter stuff,” as Willeford calls it, is artificial and horrible to clean up.
“The flavor is in the popcorn salt we use,” he explains, more than once.
Willeford serves as usher.
“There are scattered singles up toward the front,” he tells a woman.
“I’m single and scattered,” she replies.
He fields questions about if a restroom is occupied. There are two, and the only way to tell is to knock, loudly. It’s hard to hear over all the chatter in the lobby.
Before the movie starts, Willeford grabs a portable microphone and takes the stage in front of the screen.
“Thank you all for joining us,” he says to the audience, then offers a few quick jokes that get a round of applause. The lights go down and the show begins.
The Clyde is named after its founders, Norman and Hazel Clyde, who built the theater in the midst of the Great Depression. The first movie to show at The Clyde on opening day Sept. 16, 1937, was “You Can’t Have Everything,” starring Don Ameche.
Willeford’s dad, Blake, bought the theater in 1972, when he came home after three years with the Peace Corps in India. He knew nothing about running a movie house.
Lynn Willeford started as a sweeper at the theater and worked her way up to Sunday night ticket seller, then girlfriend and bookkeeper.
“She liked to say she swept her way to the top,” Willeford said. “That was one of her favorite lines.”
Willeford’s boyhood was spent napping, playing and doing homework in the balcony until he was old enough to serve as janitor.
“Whatever point in my life I was, I was at the theater,” he said.
The Willeford family never considered changing the name to The Willeford.
“Not a chance. It is The Clyde and will always be The Clyde,” Willeford said.
The Clyde has been on the big screen itself. Its exterior was done up as a bowling alley for “Dixie Lanes” in 1986, and was used in the filming of the 2002 indie drama “Highway,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jared Leto.
“The movie folks called up my mom and said ‘We’d like to put an extra in the ticket booth’ and my mom said, ‘Only if it’s my son,’” Willeford said.
Willeford, who was home from college at the time, met the stars and was made up as a dog-faced boy for the role, only to end up on the cutting room floor.
The Clyde is a part-time job for the Willeford men and snack bar workers. Ticket sellers are volunteers, paid in popcorn and free admission for family members.
Patrons leave things all the time. Found items get a masking tape tag with date, and that tape stays on after it is put to use. Nothing goes to waste.
“Today I was wearing a light jacket that still has the masking tape inside that says it was found in February of three years ago,” Willeford said. “I don’t think our family has ever bought an umbrella. We very rarely buy gloves.”
If you spot Willeford wearing something you lost at The Clyde, just let him know. He’ll happily give it back.