Ernie and Geneve Thompson carved a viewing area out of the forest and opened the Wheel-In in 1953. Their grandson and current manager Rick Wiley told KIRO radio, “We’re out in the woods of Jefferson County. It is a natural evergreen amphitheater. There is absolutely no ambient light; it’s either the stars or the screen.”
The Wheel-In hasn’t changed much since its opening. The concession stand has booths with picture windows and a small indoor viewing area. (Yet there are no walk-ins allowed, so I guess they’re available if you don’t like whoever you drove in with.) Best of all, it still provides drive-in speakers as well as FM radio sound. Call me old-fashioned, but I still enjoy hanging one of those on my window.
According to a 2013 article in the Port Townsend Leader, Sharon and Dick Wiley, Rick’s parents and the daughter- and son-in-law of Ernie Thompson, bought the drive-in in 1969. In 2007, Dick Wiley passed away and Rick moved back to town to run the Wheel-In.
In the 1990s, Sunset magazine rated the Wheel-In as the number-one drive-in in the West. “There is a quality and uniqueness that is undeniable,” Wiley said. “It’s an event, it’s a happening. It’s not just about the movie; it’s about the night air and the electricity in the air.”
The Wheel-In launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to raise money toward a digital projector, so it appears to be set for more decades of movies under the stars.
I was really disappointed to find such a historic treasure still closed for the season. Last year, the Wheel-In opened on the last weekend in April. In November, it posted on Facebook, “Due to the worst longest winter in the history of the universe, we have a couple of major projects to complete before we reopen for the 2017 summer season.”
Miles Today / Total: 49 / 14546 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 59
Nearby Restaurant: For the second straight day, the closest restaurant to the drive-in is adjacent to the nearby airport. The Spruce Goose Cafe, next to the Jefferson County International Airport, is home of the Goose Dog, which refers to this hot dog’s extra large size and not (I hope!) its ingredients. Add chili, cheese and onions and you’ve got a lunch that might keep you full for the rest of the day.
Where I Virtually Stayed: The Bishop Victorian Hotel was built in 1891, but it does a great job of straddling the past and present. My suite had a fireplace, but it also had a flat-screen TV and good internet access. Instead of lining up at a breakfast nook, I was greeted with a basket full of continental breakfast just outside my room. It wasn’t the cheapest place to stay, but the Bishop was a relaxing experience.
Only in Port Townsend: In downtown Port Townsend, there’s a wooden 75-foot fire bell tower holding a 3/4-ton brass bell. It was built in 1890 and rang coded signals as to the location and severity of the blaze that it was summoning the community to fight. Over the decades, it persisted with sporadic maintenance, and in 2004 was fully restored by the Jefferson County Historical Society and the City of Port Townsend.
Next stop: Blue Fox Drive-In Theatre, Oak Harbor WA.