The Circus Drive-In

The Circus Drive-In

Post1_1The old Circus Drive-In screen. The word 'THEATER' has been reduced to only the letter 'R' (2021)

Leaving Anacortes off State Route 20, there are few sights more iconic or eye-catching than the monolithic drive-in movie theater screen off the north side of the road. It’s a mysterious remnant of a past civilization to the younger crowd and a recognizable and nostalgic image to the older - they may even remember it as the “Circus Drive-In,” once the premiere spot on Fidalgo Island to see first-run films!

Circus Drive-in SVH reviewJim Bonholzer in 1995. (1995)

It was through the workings of serendipity that the Circus Drive-In came to be. Jim and Lorraine Bonholzer, prominent theater owners/operators from Seattle, were traversing the ebbs and flows of the Salish Sea one day in 1963 when a heavy fog came over them. Forced to head ashore, they found safe harbor in Anacortes where they stayed overnight to wait out the weather. 

Touring Fidalgo Island the next day, the Bonholzer’s eyes were caught by a For Sale Property sign extending over both sides of Old Memorial Highway. The couple instantly fell in love with the lot and the area, and they knew exactly what they were going to use the property for. Fate had brought the two to Fidalgo Island and thus began the building of the Circus Drive-In, one of the greatest outdoor theaters in all the Pacific Northwest!

Circus Drive-in 1963 pre opening photoJim Bonholzer (left) and an assistant preparing for the opening of the Circus. (1963)

The Bonholzer couple opened the Circus Drive-In to the public on June 30, 1963. The duo pulled out all the stops with the Circus: modern concession stand amenities, sweepstakes and raffles, a playground for young children, a 500 slot parking space for viewing, and even a live clown! 

Word had quickly spread far and wide about the new theater. There was excitement in the air leading up to its opening. The first film screened at the Circus was Elvis Presely’s “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” a movie set and shot only an hour and a half away in Seattle. Following it in a double feature was “Follow The Boys,” a WWII era musical starring Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss and Dany Robin. Opening day was a huge success with over 400 cars jamming Old Memorial Highway leading into the theater. It was one of the largest traffic jams in Fidalgo Island history back then.

Circus Drive-in 1963 opening ad June V2

Original Anacortes American news clipping promoting the opening of the Circus Drive-In. (1963)

The Circus’ popularity continued for years. The Circus owners showed everything from first runs, to color cartoons, to hardcore exploitation films -- a cash cow for Drive-Ins across America that would introduce the public to new forms of extreme filmmaking. It all proved to be extremely popular, attracting viewers from Oak Harbor to Mount Vernon and beyond! Unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end.

Circus in 1989 Timothy

Timothy Harris: Owner of the Drive-In during the year 1989. (1989)

The theater would end up closing in the early 1980s, but its closure was not long-lived. In 1989, Timothy Harris revived the drive-in with himself acting as manager. As it would turn out, this revival would be short-lived as well.

The most notable event from this era was a doomed heavy metal show set to take place at the Circus on September 2nd, 1989. Anacortes metal band Kaos was behind the event and was set to perform alongside a slew of other metal, punk and hard rock acts. Kaos held a successful show at the Drive-In three years prior, followed by a showing of “Friday The 13th VIII.” The same success was not found at the 1989 event. Two days before the event, they were shut down by an outdated, Woodstock-era county ordinance meant to contain rowdy concert-goers.

Kaos in 1989

Kaos 1989 effort to run a show at the Circus was quashed by outdated county law.

The Circus wouldn’t last much longer. On September 10th, 1989, the drive-in premiered its final films: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II on one screen, and Casualties of War and Lock-Up on another. By 1995 it was repurposed as “Circus Drive-In Boat Storage.” Much of the drive-in’s equipment and memorabilia was swept up by collectors during the transition. It has remained boat and RV storage for the majority of the 21st century. Only recently has the property been bought by the Swinomish Tribe, who hope to give it new life as affordable housing for the didgwálič Wellness Center! While it’s sad to see the demolition of the old outdoor theater, it’s great news that the property will be used for an important cause. Besides, the memories that were acquired at this incredible theater, will last a lifetime. 

Circus Drive In Sign V2

Some reminisced on the films they saw and experiences they had at Circus' screens.

Bradford Charles Stavig: “The last movie I saw there was “Stroker Ace” with Burt Reynolds. Might as well go out with a classic! 1983 I believe.”

Steve Needham: “I saw a replay of the Muhammad Ali, George Forman championship fight there. Although I’d listened to it on the radio months earlier seeing it on the big screen was sooo cool!”

Jennifer Butcher: “Many fun memories. Date nights and girl’s nights out.”

Gordon Janz: “The movies weren’t always G rated. The east screen was visible from the highway driving by.”

Anonymous: “I remember driving by it when I was super young, seeing it in use. It always excited me.”

Jeff Perkins: “I remember seeing films on the screen driving by on the highway heading home towards Anacortes when I was real young in the mid 80s. Must have been the last days of operation.”

Mike MacCulloch: “I remember seeing Star Wars there.”

Quita Stone: “Was on the way to opening night at the Circus and was in a car wreck so I never made it there. No one was seriously injured.”

Bob Wheeler: “I remember being there but didn’t know they had movies, lol.”

Linda Andrich: “Remember when it opened and the thrill and novelty of going out there to watch a movie. It was such a thrill, and romantic to watch a movie in your car, eat popcorn and snuggle with your partner.”

Carl Nickerson: “I remember playing on the merry go round before the show started.”

Others remembered the timeless tradition of sneaking into the picture show!

Ginny Connelly: “Lots of great memories from watching movies there and I may have snuck people in my trunk a time or two. (Shhhhhh).”

Bradford Charles Stavig: “A certain classmate of mine (AHS Class of 79) tried to sneak in through the exit. Apparently he didn’t know that the exit had “teeth” to discourage such behavior, and all four tires were punctured. Oops.."

Bob Racanello: “First time there we had two guys in the trunk.”

Judy Dragovich Petrin: “I came out to the drive-in several times in a trunk!”

Nancy Howard: “As kids, we would ride our bikes down to see what was going to be on for the weekend. Sometimes sneak in and find someone we knew and sit in their car to watch the movie. We could see the screen from our upstairs window, but something was lost without the sound. There were some discussions on running underground wire for sound, but nothing ever came of that.”

Some had personal and professional connections to the place.

Marty Laumbattus: “Worked there in the box office after high school, summer of 66.”

Laurrie Bonholzer Zimmerman: “The box-office came from the Seattle World’s Fair.”

Robert Matson: “Helped put on the original paint on the snack bar.”

Aaron Jensen: “I ran the projectors there for a while.”.

Erik Olson: “I used to manage the Storage for my friend up until  Mr. B sold it to Mr. Wooding. Lots of memories there!”

Brandon Osias: “I lived there as a kid when my uncle Mike Harke and Mary Lue owned it and had the outboard doc.”

Jessica Lynch: “One of the first designs I drew when I moved to Anacortes in ‘99 was of it’s big letter sign, the letters at that time spelled “th atr” then years later when another letter fell we reprinted it as “h atr”. 

Others had musical connections.

Doug Cassidy: “There was at least one rock show there. Circa 1986.” (Kaos)


Many pointed out that the Circus is featured in the liner notes of the band Candlebox's self-titled release (1991).

CandleboxThis photo is of a signed copy of the liner notes owned by George Lang. The Circus can be seen below.

George Lang: "[Kevin Martin of Candlebox] told me they were out doing a photoshoot for the album and saw this place from the road and stopped. He said they jumped the fence, took a few shots and then took off!"