PORT TOWNSEND — Rick Wiley, third-generation owner of the Wheel-In Motor Movie, doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t spend time in the meadow south of Port Townsend on a regular basis.
And as owner of the only remaining drive-in movie on the North Olympic Peninsula — one of five remaining in the state — Wiley is optimistic about the future of the property at the corner of state highways 19 and 20 south of Port Townsend that was opened by his grandfather in 1953.
The theater at 210 Theatre Road, which opens for its 60th season tonight, draws people from Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap counties, along with those who have driven longer distances for a unique experience, said Wiley, 56.
‘Under the stars’
“This is a beautiful setting where a family can get together under the stars and be safe,” Wiley said.
“It doesn’t cost very much, and it is a great place to go in the summertime.”
The Wheel-In box office will be open at 7:30 tonight, with the first movie, “Oblivion,” starring Tom Cruise, beginning at dusk.
Oblivion will be followed by “Identity Thief,” with Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy.
The double-feature format is what gives the drive-in movies added value and uniqueness, Wiley said.
He said he tries to present the movies people want to see and provide a cross-section of the latest and best.
“At the end of any year, any movie worth seeing shows at the Wheel-In,” he said.
Wiley, who also owns and operates The Uptown Theatre in Port Townsend, is facing an expensive year because the deadline for theaters to convert to digital format is approaching.
“We now have until the end of 2013,” Wiley said.
“They tried to get it done earlier, but a lot of small-theater owners couldn’t afford the equipment, so they pushed it back.”
Wiley won’t discuss exact numbers but said converting to digital will cost between $60,000 and $80,000, and he’ll have to do it twice.
The digital capability will will enhance the experience, Wiley said.
“After we go digital, the sound will be better, and the picture will be better,” he said.
“I’m real excited about this.”
The conversion for the Wheel-In will be different since the drive-in won’t be equipped with a 3-D projector.
“Three-D doesn’t work at drive-ins,” he said.
“You have the windshield blocking you, there are no walls, and you can never get the glasses back at the end of the movie,” Wiley said.
“But it evens out, since you need to get a more powerful projector to put the digital images on a screen that is larger and farther away than in an indoor theater.”
Wiley said that aside from the Wheel-In, the only drive-ins in the state are in Gorst, Whidbey Island, Shelton and Colville — the latter being in its last season.
Although several drive-ins have closed in recent years, it isn’t because business is bad or people don’t want to sit in their cars and watch a movie, Wiley said.
“Year after year, the movie studios see a bigger profit than the year before,” he said.
“Drive-in movies are dying out because the people who own them aren’t interested in doing a lot of hard work, and they can also make more money if they sell the property to a developer.”
Wiley will stay put because he loves the business and thrives on the work, he said.
The day before opening, he was cutting grass, installing speakers and installing the sign that his grandfather created 60 years ago.
“It has a little bit of dry rot, but it still looks pretty good,” Wiley said.
Wiley has a 15-year-plan and doesn’t plan to retire “until the Wheel-In can be the absolute best it can be,” but he said he isn’t sure it will remain a family business.
Wiley’s children, who are 4 and 2, won’t be ready to take over the business for a while.
“This is the best remaining drive-in movie in the West, and I’ve been to them all,” Wiley said.
“The projection booth sits on a hill above the cars, and the screen is above the grass, so you don’t have to lean forward or lean back to see the movie.
“It is surrounded by a natural evergreen amphitheater, and you are right under the stars,” he added.
“There are no city lights to get in the way.”
The drive-in shows movies Wednesdays through Sundays during the season.
General admission is $8.50, seniors and those 12 and younger get in for $6.50, and those younger than 6 are admitted free.
For more information, phone 360-385-0859 or visit www.ptwheelinmotormovie.com.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]