GRANGEVILLE Movies have always been a part of Chris Wagner’s life.
“I do enjoy movies – it’s in my blood,” he smiled.
Wagner began working at the Blue Fox Theater downtown Grangeville when he was 10 or 12 years old, he said.
“I was behind the concessions stands then,” he said. Chris can still be seen helping out in concessions almost nightly.
Throughout their history, the Blue Fox Theater and Sunset Auto Vue drive-in have charmed movie-goers the modern way. For the history enthusiast, the Blue Fox is both a must-see and a can’t-miss standing in the center of Grangeville’s downtown.
The marquee and neon lights pepper the building’s retro aesthetic, but inside, a bit of digital-age technology shines an even brighter light on the classic big screen. With a digital projector putting all the latest hit movies on display, the Blue Fox has made a leap in the interest of keeping up with the times that relatively few small-town theaters across the country have made.
“You have to keep up with technology, and going digital was one of the best things ever as far as picture quality,” Chris said.
But let’s back up a bit.
According to Free Press records, the opening of Al J. Wagner’s Spanish-style theater was May 2, 1930. The first show was Warner Brothers’ “Gold Diggers of Broadway.” The film was billed as “100 percent national color singing and dancing.”
Al opened the theater next door to his former silent movie house — “The Lyric.” Movie prices for that opening show were 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for students and 15 cents for kids.
“There was a hand printing press that’s still around somewhere there, and the whole month’s movie schedule would be printed on that,” John Wagner (son of Al) said in a 2009 interview.
The grand opening captured the entire front page of the Idaho County Free Press. Two bands played continuously in front of the theater and a dance was held there that evening.
The theater used to host live shows with music resounding from its orchestra pit and also showed three changes a week.
In 1942 a fire occurred, collapsing the roof and claiming a portion of the building. The theater was rebuilt that same year.
The movie house was taken over by John Wagner’s son, Port, in 1954. Al Sr. died in 1969 and John sold his interest in the business in 1975. Port died in 2007. The Wagner family also owns the Rex Theater in Orofino.
The business that keeps the lights on has roots that run as deep in the area as the owner-operator Wagner family, and the building itself forms a connection to the past that numbers uniquely among Idaho’s historic places.
In 1999, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Back to Chris.
“I became a projectionist when I was 14,” he explained.
That was back in the day when the movie reels ran for 20 minutes then had to be changed.
“You really had to pay attention,” he said. “You could end up with broken film or the strip unreeling and piling up on the floor.”
“I did have a few mishaps,” he smiled.
That job included setting up, taking tickets and, of course, staying throughout the movie.
Chris graduated from Grangeville High School and in 1975 decided to make the move to Alaska. He worked in maintenance at The Hilton and was a painter in the state for years.
It was nearly 20 years later, in 1994, when Port was considering retiring that Chris came home for a visit.
“I was supposed to be here for a week. Dad offered to let me buy the business, and at first I just wasn’t sure – I wasn’t that interested,” he said. “I stayed another week, checking things out, then I went back to Alaska.”
He said it took him about three weeks to call his father and tell him, “I’m in.”
What changed his mind?
“I thought, ‘I think I can do better than climbing a ladder when I’m 60,’” he chuckled.
And he said it’s been a great move back home.
“It was good to see Alaska and have that experience and make those friends, but I also moved home to a great group of friends and my family as well,” he said.
Chris said he had “a lot to learn” on the business side of things, so he appreciates the time he had to work with his father.
“I was able to work with Dad from 1994 through 2007,” he said.
Chris admits his father paid more attention to the bottom line than he did at the time.
“He kept the books and was really proud of that,” he said. “I never wanted to push him out of that place. I think it helped keep him active, and he was a good businessman.”
As families often do when they work together, they had a disagreement that lasted a few years.
“I wanted to open up the drive-in theater,” Chris recalled. “I brought it up to Dad for three or four years.”
The Sunset Auto Vue was built in 1955 and closed in 1986.
Port was adamantly against opening the drive-in, Chris said.
Finally, in 1998, Chris walked into his father’s office.
“’I want you to know I’ve saved some money, and I’m going to put it in to opening the drive-in. What I don’t have, you’re going to have to loan me,’” Chris recalled. He walked out.
It wasn’t too long before his father came to him, and, sensing his resolve, gave his blessing.
Sunset Auto Vue opened in 1998, and since, carloads of people have been flocking to the theater. Many spring, summer and fall nights the cars arrive early and the scene is Norman Rockwell-like with kids playing football, the sound of laughter wafting throughout the area and the smell of hot dogs roasting on the grill.
“My dad called me into his office sometime after it opened and told me, ‘By the way, opening that drive-in was the best thing you’ve done since you’ve been here,’” Chris said. “It definitely added to the bottom line.
Chris feels the drive-in is a perfect family activity, he said, and also allows for customized sound.
“The speakers on a post are gone, and people listen through their own car stereo systems, which tend to be very good nowadays,” he said. “Those who have hearing trouble can turn up the bass or treble and adjust the levels and sound to their own sensitivities and likes. Their cars are like the perfect little auditorium with surround sound.”
The idea of moving forward and offering more for the community is not lost on Chris.
In the middle of the day on Feb. 13, 2012, high-pitched giggles echoed throughout the Blue Fox Theater.
The first two rows of the theater were filled with parents and students from Noah’s Ark Preschool. Four-year-old Siena Wagner brought her teacher, Stephanie Jordan, and class to the theater as a Valentine treat, but the experience was something more.
“It kind of made me teary eyed - the changing of an era,” said Jordan, who also sat and watched spliced-together old Merrie Melodies, Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons.
“Thank you, Daddy,” grinned Siena Wagner as she and her friends got ready to leave the theater.
The baton had been passed.
The Main Street Theater closed for one day, Wednesday, Feb. 15, as the 35-millimeter projectors were taken out of the upstairs booth and are replaced by a digital system.
“Yeah, it’s neat to get to share this with Sienna,” said Chris at the time. “Not that she knows it’s a milestone.” Siena is now 10 years old and a regular at the theater.
Sunset Auto Vue went digital the following year in 2013.
“It was kind of weird – I was watching a movie at Blue Fox through the projector on a Tuesday and by Thursday night it was digital and the difference really was amazing – less grainy. The clarity was great,” he said. “It was an expensive process, but worth it.”
Wagner has also kept up with painting and installing new seats downtown, and fencing, mowing and even a new screen at the Sunset Auto Vue following a wind storm on Veterans Day of 2007 that took down the old screen.
The year 2011 brought the theater’s first-ever midnight premier with the movie “Breaking Dawn” – a part of the popular Twilight series. Moviegoers lined up before 11:30 p.m. on the downtown sidewalk to view the show.
Since then, the Blue Fox has same-day premiered many movies, to the delight of locals.
As for the future of the movie industry, Chris said he hears that laser projectors are not that far away.
“They are supposed to be even better as far as clarity and sound,” he said. “The cost to run is supposed to be quite a bit cheaper, as well. We’ll see what happens.”
Although he has been present for thousands of movies throughout the years, Chris said he best remembers the James Bond films as being exciting and also fondly remembers the futuristic “Westworld” from 1973 starring Yul Brynner.
“I don’t have a very good memory,” he laughed, “I have watched a lot of movies throughout the years.”