Shawn Vestal: Iconic Garland Theater marks 70th birthday
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Shawn Vestal: Iconic Garland Theater marks 70th birthday
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The Garland Theater will show a special movie Saturday night, but they’re keeping the title under wraps.

This time, the theater itself is the main attraction.

Spokane’s discount movie palace is celebrating its 70th birthday with a free party including the secret movie, cake and prizes, as well as stories from longtime patrons. Owner Katherine Fritchie is marking this anniversary as she continues to walk an interesting line between past and future – preserving the character of the theater while steadily investing in new features and equipment. Just this week, the Garland finished a $70,000 upgrade of its sound system.

“Kathy’s done just a beautiful job fixing it up,” said Tari Rogalski, a 70-year-old Spokane resident. “You can go in, take your beer or your wine with you, get something to eat. It’s great.”

Rogalski and her husband, George, went on their first date at the theater in late 1962 or early 1963. At the time, the Garland was almost 20 years old, but it retained the elegance that was a mark of the Garland’s early years.

“It was really nice,” Rogalski said, “but I don’t think it was as nice as it is now.”

The theater opened in November 1945 to great hullabaloo. Newspapers praised its modern design, spacious interior and details including “germicidal lamps” to purify the air. Hollywood A-listers like Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and Bob Hope sent telegrams of congratulations, according to the theater’s Web page. It opened with a double bill: “It’s a Pleasure,” starring figure-skater-turned-movie-star Sonja Henie, and “Double Exposure,” a B-movie crime comedy.

Over the years, ownership and styles changed, but since the late 1980s it has been a discount theater, showing mostly not-quite-new movies. In thrifty Spokane, its value has always been a large part of its draw. Most movies now cost $5 – a steal – and yet a lot of people still yearn for the days when it was literally a dollar theater.

“Even with all these upgrades and new sound and everything, I get, ‘Take it back to a dollar, take it back to a dollar,’ ” Fritchie said.

But people may not realize how long ago that was. “It was a dollar-fifty when I bought it,” she said.

She purchased the business in 1999 and the building in 2002. Even then her idea was to add drinks and food for theatergoers, like some of the hip movie houses in Portland and New Orleans. She also had an eye on some technical improvements, which have played out over the last decade-plus while leaving intact the historic elements of the place – the purple tiled columns in the lobby, the scalloped lighting in the theater, the magnificent sign. It has been placed on both the national and local historic registers.

“I didn’t want to change any of that, but I did want to upgrade how comfortable the seats were, the picture, the sound,” Fritchie said.

Making it legal for people carry a beer into the movie turned out to be a much bigger challenge than any of the technical issues, requiring elaborate wrestling with the state’s restrictions on where and when and how people can have a drink.

Fritchie opened Bon Bon, a little bar tucked to the side of the main entrance, in 2010. It took until last year to work out the permitting to allow patrons to take beer or wine into the theater – but not liquor, which is unfortunate given the small bar’s excellent selection of booze. They also serve food, with a menu that includes shrimp tacos and pulled pork sandwiches.

It is, in short, a cool new place evolving inside a cool old place, and it is unique in Spokane. Seemingly everyone has a memory – or many of them – tied to the Garland. First dates and first jobs. Family outings. There have been proposals at the theater, and even a wedding in 2008. Some of those stories will be shared during Saturday’s party.

The tale of Tari and George Rogalski’s first date will be among them. The Rogalskis, who are Fritchie’s former in-laws, were both working at The Spokesman-Review in the early 1960s when they met and went to see “Westward Ho the Wagons!”

“I was a copy girl and George worked in AP wire photos,” Tari said.

George had gotten it into his head that Tari had access to free movie tickets, she said. They went out for a milkshake before the movie, and as they approached the box office, he asked her if she had the passes, and was surprised when she said no. He wound up footing the $1 bill for two tickets.

“It broke him up,” Tari said. “He’s still talking about it.”

They were married in 1966.

Another part of Saturday’s celebration will be a $7 midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the campy 1975 film that has become a mainstay midnight movie and participatory spectacle. The film’s fans are passionate and committed – a Spokane group has been performing as a “shadow cast” at the Garland’s showings, acting out scenes from the movie in an expansion of the already participatory nature of the film, which includes talking back to the film, singing along, and hurling toast or toilet paper at the screen at key lines.

Theater manager Tana Brunson said the Garland shows the movie four midnights a year – “A Halloween Rocky, a Valentine’s Day Rocky, and usually a beginning and end of summer Rocky.”

Saturday’s party is free, with doors opening at 6:30 and the movie starting at 8. Fritchie and Brunson revealed a couple of hints about the “special, secret movie”: It’s a family-friendly film from the 1970s with an excellent soundtrack.

Not “Fifty Shades of Grey,” apparently.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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