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House gives nod for liquor, wine sales at movie theaters

OLYMPIA - Washington's historic movie houses are cozying up to the idea of serving patrons beer and wine to go with their pizza and popcorn.

Movie patrons who frequent historic theaters may soon be able to enjoy a glass of wine while watching favorite actors flit across the silver screen.

The cost of the license to sell beer or wine would be an annual fee of $200, or $400 to sell both.

According to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver), historic theater operators currently have the option of applying for a tavern license or a restaurant license if they want to serve alcoholic beverages.

If a theater has a tavern license, persons under 21 are not permitted on the premises, and most historic theaters don't have the capacity to meet the requirements of a restaurant license, said Moeller.

The bill proposal would create a third option, a theater license, to avoid the need to obtain a tavern or restaurant license.

According to Moeller, historic theaters in downtown areas are "struggling to stay alive" while competing with multiplex cinemas. The owner of the Kiggins Theater in Moeller's district approached the representative with the idea for the legislation.

"Hopefully this will allow the Kiggins Theater to stay open," said Moeller.

Here in the Lower Valley, Prosser's historic Princess Theatre has been given a new life under the management of the Valley Theater Company. The theater often hosts classic film and art events, with beer and wine served next door in the Green Room.

The legislation proposed now, though, would allow liquor sales in the theater itself.

"It sounds like it might expand our opportunities," says Candace Andrews, a board member of the Valley Theater Company. "We get requests from people to see if they can have beer or wine."

Those affiliated with other historic theaters in the state are also intrigued by the bill's possibilities. Several owners of historic theaters traveled to Olympia in support of it.

One is Rand Thornsley, managing director and partner of Liberty Theater in Camas.

"These theaters have been struggling for a long time," said Thornsley. "Finding a business plan to keep them financially viable to keep them operating is very tough."

Thornsley believes he has total community support for the legislation.

"We're looking for a niche that will make us more of an event destination ... you can go to the movies, you can have dinner, have some drinks, enjoy some time with your family," said Thornsley.

Rocky Friedman, owner of the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, said he would not serve alcohol in his theater because the venue isn't built with cup holders to accommodate drinkers.

However, Friedman believes that small theaters should have the option to apply for liquor licenses.

According to Friedman, small theaters already have to go through a major and costly transition from film to digital projection. If historic theaters can generate revenue from alcohol sales, Friedman believes they should have the right to do so.

There is opposition to the legislation.

Seth Dawson, board member of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention, testified against the bill. During his testimony, Dawson addressed concerns about expanding the availability of alcohol in atypical situations.

Dawson also argued that the legislation contradicts the association's message that there are fun activities minors can participate in without alcohol, such as going to the movies.

The measure also stipulates that theater-license applicants must also submit a minor-control plan to the Liquor Control Board. The plan must map out where and when minors would be permitted on the theater's premises. Applicants would also have to explain what prevention measures they would use in order to prohibit minors from obtaining alcohol.

Many worry about kids getting liquor or people getting drunk, said Thornsley. "People like to enjoy a glass of wine without getting drunk. People like to have a glass of beer. It's part of their social way of entertaining, watching a movie, getting something to eat and doing it all at once."

The legislation passed the House with a vote of 87 to 10. It is now making its rounds through the Senate.

Members of the Liquor Control Board - the entity required to issue the licenses - remain neutral in the debate. According to board Communications Director Brian Smith, in 2010 the board adopted rules denying liquor licenses to single-room theaters where there are minors present.

Liquor-enforcement officers can't adequately perform a premise check for minors in dark theaters and it becomes problematic to check identification if an individual buys two drinks and gives one drink to someone else, said Smith.

If the measure becomes law, the Liquor Control Board would have to create a theater license as well as devise rules for the minor-control plans.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce and Consumer Protection held a public hearing on the theater liquor bill, Engrossed House Bill 2558.

Andrews says the legislation, if approved, could help ensure the Princess' run as a venue for art, movies and plays in Prosser.

"We are extremely fortunate in the Lower Yakima Valley to have this old, beautiful theater functioning as a theater," she said. "If this would allow us to draw more people to what's being presented there, that would be wonderful."

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