Blue Fox defies trend, stays alive

Oak Harbor’s drive-in theater popular all over

While many drive-ins around the country have gone the way of the dodo, the Blue Fox Drive-In Theater is fighting to keep itself off the endangered species list.

Darrell and Lori Bratt, who purchased the theater in 1988, literally work around the clock to keep the drive-in bustling and the moviegoers happy.

“We get here at about nine in the morning and leave at 2 a.m., depending on the length of the movie,” Darrell said. “It makes for long days, seven days a week.”

The payoff for the intensive labor, part of which the owners’ four children shoulder, is the unique experience a drive-in theater offers.

“It’s a nostalgia thing for our generation,” Darrell said. “We remember when we went with our parents to the drive-ins, so they’re wanting to show that to their kids.”

Keeping the Blue Fox in business has been a true family cooperative effort, Lori said.

“Our daughter Danielle and husband Jon are stationed in Fort Lewis, but still come home to help,” she said. “And our daughter Sarah gives up her summers to come back from college as well. We wouldn’t still be in business without their help all these years.”

When the movie screen blew down in a 1998 windstorm, Lori’s father and three brothers came to the family’s aid.

“My dad has been a mentor to Darrell and is always there to help us,” Lori said. “My mom helps with anything I need too. Darrell’s dad helps with our outside work and is the popcorn guy. His mom runs the ticket booth too.”

The Bratt family is an anomaly. Many drive-in theater owners have sold out, realizing that property values far exceeded the financial benefits of running the business. Only eight drive-ins remain in the state, with the already minute number decreasing every year.

“Towns build up around the drive-ins and the property becomes so valuable to sell,” Lori said.

For the last few months, every person entering the Blue Fox has been given a survey asking each customer where he or she resides. The results of the survey have been staggering.

“Fifty percent of our customer base does not live in Oak Harbor,” Darrell said. “When they fill out that form, they put down another town besides Oak Harbor.”

As added incentive to return the survey form, a drawing will be held at the end of summer for a new XBox 360.

The disparity in the attendance numbers can be attributed to the death of drive-ins in nearby communities, Darrell said.

“Elsewhere in Anacortes, Mount Vernon, Burlington, and even Bellingham, they don’t have a drive-in anymore,” he said. “They lost their drive-ins and they still want to have that family outing and event.”

“It’s pretty amazing to see how far high school kids come to watch a movie,” added Lori, who has witnessed the huge influx of young adults making the trek to the Blue Fox.

Darrell speculated that military turnover has partly accounted for the lack of local moviegoers.

“You build up your clientele to where after they’ve been here a year-and-a-half, they finally figure out that you’re here and then they’re gone in six months,” he said.

For other residents, the local drive-in might just be overlooked. If the theater did not survive, people would take notice, Darrell said. The Blue Fox owners, however, are loath to see the drive-in close.

“Because they haven’t lost the drive-in, a lot of people in Oak Harbor don’t realize what they have in their own backyard,” Darrell said.

“A lot of people who have grown up here do not realize how lucky they are to still have it,” Lori added.

To enhance the drive-in experience, the Bratts completely gutted and renovated the concessions stand, offering a full menu in an immaculate facility straight out of the 1950s.

“We have great food,” Darrell said. “Our pizzas are not the frozen, cardboard box pizzas that most drive-ins have.”

Concessions are the primary source of income for drive-in theater owners. Augmenting the food offerings encourages customers to leave their own food at home.

“The box office takes a lot of the money,” Darrell said. “Concessions are where we make our money, so that’s where we need to have our sales.”

Another improvement came in 1990 in the form of FM radio, which replaced the antiquated speakers. Removing the speakers also allowed the drive-in to accommodate more vehicles.

“We had our biggest increase in business that year,” Darrell said.

In addition to the drive-in, the Bratts also entice passersby with an expansive go-cart track, a miniature train for children and an arcade.

Running the drive-in has been a labor of love for the family. With more promotions in the pipeline, including triple features and concession specials through Thursday, the future of the Blue Fox looks promising. To ensure its survival, however, more residents will need to remember exactly what the imposing white screen on Highway 20 represents and what it has to offer.

The Blue Fox Drive-In Theater can be reached at 675-5667.