Gone with the Wind

Into the second day of an ongoing windstorm across the region, on Monday, Jan. 6, gusting winds resulted in that afternoon’s blowdown of the movie screen at the Sunset Auto Vue in Grangeville. This screen replaced one destroyed in a November 2007 windstorm. The windstorm started just before noon on Sunday, with winds that day gusting between the low 20s to mid 30s. By Monday, gusts had increased to the mid 30s and up to 59 mph at 3:15 p.m. that day, according to the National Weather Service measuring station at the Idaho County Airport. Gusts earlier that day resulted in a southbound semi-truck and trailer being blown off the road, five miles south of Grangeville on U.S. Highway 95. No injuries were reported in that incident, and the highway was partially closed for nearly an hour for wreckers to recover the damaged semi and trailer.

GRANGEVILLE – “I was driving from town to home [on Mt. Idaho Grade Road] on Monday [Jan. 6] and when I hit the drive-in corner I thought, ‘something doesn’t look right,’” Chris Wagner said.

Wagner, the owner of Sunset Auto View Drive-In and the Blue Fox Theater downtown, said he pulled over at the triangle by the stop sign that leads to Grangeville Salmon Road and just looked over at the drive-in field.

“It took a while to register – I was very surprised to see the screen down,” he shook his head.

The 72 by 32 white metal screen had folded and tumbled down in the wind that afternoon. The Idaho County Airport reported the wind gusts at 58.65 miles per hour that Monday.

Wagner said he spoke to the screen and supports manufacturer and found he, now at age 80, had just retired two years back.

“He told me this is only the second screen he’s ever lost,” Wagner said. “He was pretty surprised, too.”

In November 2007, the screen also came down in a windstorm. The drive-in was built in 1955 and closed in 1986. Wagner re-opened the drive-in in 1998 and it has since been a staple in spring and summer entertainment on the Camas Prairie.

In 2007, a company came in and built the new supports and put up the new screen.

“They are really a reputable company – the best there is probably,” said Wagner. He added that years ago, there were more than 5,000 drive-ins, whereas now there are only 350 left. “So, what was a lucrative business in building and maintaining the supports and screens just isn’t the same industry today that it once was.”

During that last rebuild, the company started from scratch from the ground up and placed about 25 yards of concrete under each support.

“They welded, placed metal bracing and built it very sturdily,” he said. “Obviously, we had some very strong winds that caught it just right.”

At the time in 2007, Wagner’s father, Port, had recently died.

“I remember feeling distraught and wondering who I could bounce ideas off without my dad here,” he recalled.

Wagner said he has insurance on the screen and property, but he is “very thankful” for all the community support and offers for help he has so far received.

“I am very appreciative of all the kind words and positive and supportive comments I am getting from people,” he said. “It means a lot.”

As of press time, the Free Press Facebook post on the destruction of the screen had more than 330 comments, more than 675 shares and more than 1,000 likes.

Wagner said he understands people do not want to lose the popular – and fairly unique – form of entertainment across the Camas Prairie.

“And they won’t – we’ll get it back up again,” he said.

As soon as the weather is safe enough to remove the existing debris, Wagner said that will take place first. He plans to get the screen back up sometime this spring.

“It’s important, and we’ll get it done,” he said.

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