Shelton’s Skyline Drive-In Theater will soon celebrate 50 years in business

Shelton’s Skyline Drive-In Theater will soon celebrate 50 years in business, one of only 6 drive-in theaters operating in Washington

Staff writerMarch 23, 2014 

The year was 1968 and Sheri Thompson of Lacey, along with three friends — Margie, Mary Lou and Mary — were about to spend another night at the Skyline Drive-In Theater in Shelton, a regular destination for Thompson, 17, and her friends. The theater is about halfway between Olympia and downtown Shelton.

“It was a good place to meet up with other friends from high school,” said Thompson, who attended North Thurston High School in those days.

But they didn’t have enough money to buy four tickets that night so two of them, including Thompson, volunteered to get into the trunk of her friend’s father’s large car.

“It made all the sense in the world at the time,” she said.

But as soon as they parked in back after paying for two tickets — and Thompson and her friend emerged from the trunk — a drive-in staffer was waiting, standing there with a flashlight and a look of disgust.

He gave an ultimatum: cough up enough money for two more tickets or two of them would have to leave.

Thompson said they scrounged up the $1.40 for two more tickets — it cost about 70 cents then to go to the movies.

“I’m sure it wasn’t a dollar because that was lot of money in those days,” she said.

The experience didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the Skyline Drive-In.

Thompson and her friends would go to the drive-in at least twice a month, and then as she got older and had her own daughter, the drive-in was a place where you could take your family, bring your own food and not worry about whether your kids made noise.

Thompson’s story is one of several that past customers, former employees and the current owners have shared about a drive-in that will celebrate 50 years in business May 28, one of the few left in the state. The Skyline opened March 28 and will remain open through the end of September.

The 50th anniversary celebration is still to be determined, current owner Dorothea Mayes, 63, said. Mayes is a longtime film booker who also owns the Shelton Cinemas, and who also booked films for the Skyline when it was run by former owner Fred Thibodeau.

But this much is known: The theater plans to open the season with a sing-a-long version of “Frozen” and “The Lego Movie.” Another midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” something the theater has done for more than 10 years, is set for August, co-owner Christopher Mayes said.

Mayes is such a movie buff that he has an image from “Jaws,” his favorite movie, tattooed on his calf.

And films are shown digitally now after the theater raised enough money via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to purchase one.

Thibodeau, who got the ball rolling on the drive-in in 1960, eventually opening it May 28, 1964, fell ill and sold the Skyline to Mayes in 2005 before dying in 2006, she said.

A COUPLE OF FREDS

Thibodeau and business partner Fred Hendry, who is thought to have died in 1990, were painters at the Bremerton Navy Shipyard when they pitched the idea of a drive-in on Port of Shelton property — which was later rejected — but finally settled on 14 acres that face U.S. Highway 101 in Mason County.

Only six of the 14 acres are used for the drive-in, which can accommodate more than 300 cars.

The opening night feature, according to The Olympian for May 28, 1964, was the Disney classic “Lady and the Tramp” plus a cartoon.

The drive-in’s heyday was in the 1960s as the automobile became a larger part of consumers’ lives, and the U.S. family was on the move.

The drive-in experience has gone through several incarnations since then, said Dorothea Mayes and longtime projectionist Ken Layton of Olympia, who worked for Thibodeau from 1992 to 2002.

The drive-in initially catered to families, then transitioned to B-movies — those low-budget affairs better known for gore, horror and nudity — followed by adult movies, and then a return to mainstream movies for adults and children.

There also were a lot more drive-in theaters.

In addition to the Skyline, Lacey had a drive-in theater where Fred Meyer is today, and Tumwater had the Sunset drive-in theater where Tumwater City Hall is now.

Mayes said the Skyline emphasizes a family-friendly environment and added that the movies geared toward children tend to be some of their most popular. The theater was overflowing with cars during a recent triple-feature of “Cars,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Talladega Nights,” she said.

‘DEBBIE DOES DALLAS’

But the Skyline did go through its X-rated phase in the 1970s, she and projectionist Layton said.

Co-owner Christopher Mayes said he has had the awkward experience of meeting someone who remembers that time, telling him, “I saw ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ there!”

But Layton, who recalled his conversations with Thibodeau about that time, said Thibodeau viewed X-rated fare as money-makers.

During Thibodeau’s tenure as owner, he ran the theater only on weekends. An adult movie wasn’t nearly as long as a typical Hollywood feature, so he could show a triple-feature in less time and still “pack the house,” Layton said.

Adult movies at the Skyline went away once the VCR arrived and consumers decided they could watch those movies at home.

A LOT OF FUN

Layton, 58, of Olympia was born in Fort Ord, Calif., and moved with his family to Olympia in 1960. He has celluloid in his blood.

Layton spent 10 years at Tumwater’s Sunset Drive-In, where he made repairs to audio speakers, then spent about six months at the drive-in theater in Lacey before landing at the Skyline for 10 years. Layton today services arcade games at the Century Theaters at Capital Mall in Olympia.

Ask him about his experience at the Skyline and his response is unequivocal:

“It was a lot of fun,” he said, adding that he enjoyed meeting the customers and working for Thibodeau, who liked to sit on a stool when the weather was good and sell tickets. He often had a paintbrush in hand and was always painting something at the drive-in.

Some other memories:

• Customers sneaked in all the time. “You could tell because the cars would sit lower as they came in,” Layton said.

• His day as projectionist would start as early as 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. and end as late as 2:30 or 3:30 a.m.

• After the theater closed at night, employees would have to clean up debris, typically finding beer cans, beer bottles, and sometimes a soiled diaper and used condoms. Layton said he once found a diabetes kit with insulin and needles, eventually returning it to its owner.

• People fell asleep all the time, meaning employees would have to knock on windows to wake up and tell the customer the movie was finished.

• Most interesting seating arrangement: A couch was once brought to the theater and then it was left there at the end of the night.

• The Skyline’s neon sign caught fire one summer, Layton said, but fire crews stopped it from spreading and limited the damage to just a portion of the sign. Layton announced to the audience what was going on and that fire crews had it under control and kept the movie going.

FOOD CART?

Other changes are planned for the Skyline, including pressure washing the screen, repairing the fence that surrounds the theater, repairing the neon sign and widening the entry road. Customers also like to sit on the grass in front of the screen, so there’s the possibility of adding outdoor speakers and a food cart, Dorothea Mayes said.

Although there are few drive-in theaters left in the state — the United Drive In Theatre Owner’s Association says six remain in Washington — those that are left benefit from the novelty of still being in business.

“The nostalgia factor is actually very helpful,” Mayes said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403
rboone@theolympian.com

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service