In an era when old theaters are fewer and farther between, the Ruby Theatre in Chelan, located at 135 E Woodin Avenue, may very well be Washington state’s oldest motion picture venue. Whereas elaborate movie palaces in cities such as Seattle and Spokane came and went with the times, the Ruby holds the distinction of running almost continuously since its opening in 1914, save for a brief two-year closure in the 1970s.
Debuting on July 1, 1914, as the Kingman Theatre, the venue was built for $6,500 by Herbert and Morrison M. Kingman. Shortly after the opening, the Kingmans sold it to F. J. Potter, formerly of the Gem Theater (located on the same block), who renamed it after his foster daughter, Ruby.
The Ruby originally sat 225 people on the main floor and another 125 in its horseshoe-shaped balcony. Several renovations over the years have resulted in varying seating capacities -- from a high of 428 to today’s figure of 174. Ticket prices for the movie house were typical for the period in which it opened -- matinees at 10 and 15 cents for adults, slightly more for evening screenings. Yet the Ruby also catered to decidedly rural clientele: In at least one case, matinee admission could be obtained for three potatoes.
The seating capacity isn’t the only thing that has changed since 1914. The Ruby originally had one set of double doors as an entryway, with an outside balcony area and wrought iron railing handing over the front -- both are long gone. The interior balcony and rosette ceiling remain, although one of the Ruby’s original restrooms, located directly beneath the stage area at the front of the auditorium, has been remodeled away. The drop curtains are also no longer there, although an advertising drop from the early 1920s now resides in the Chelan Museum.
The Ruby originally had a piano and an organ to accompany its motion picture screenings. In 1922, these were replaced by a photoplayer instrument, much like a player piano with sound effects that could be operated via wires and pulleys.
Later, after sound films became popular, the Ruby was renovated to accommodate the new technology. The first sound picture at the venue was Sweetie, which opened on March 20, 1930, almost three years after sound films had debuted elsewhere in the state. In 1947, a “Mirrorphonic” sound system was added, which was eventually replaced in April 1999 by a modern sound system.
Although F. J. Potter took over the Ruby shortly after it opened, he lasted a mere four years at the venue before deciding instead to operate a ferry service across the Columbia River. The Ruby was then owned and operated by R. A. Kelsey and family, who were active in its day-to-day operations through 1937 and continued to own the venue until the mid-1970s.
The current owners, Jean Payne Vick and Larry Hibbard, purchased the theater in 1989 at a time when it was in danger of closing for good. It has since become Chelan’s home not only for movies (there are no other theaters in Chelan), but also for local meetings, concerts, workshops, and other types of public gatherings.