Marking History through Marquees
Portland, Oregon is a fairly perfect city for people with a passion for film. Not only was it ranked the top city for movie lovers in the country by Movoto – a data-driven decision based on the number of movie theaters, film festivals, speciality theaters etc, per capita – it was also one of the first cities on the West Coast to embrace this form of entertainment. It’s been suggested that this is largely due to the rainy weather, making any indoor activity that much more appealing.
Portland’s cinematic past starts with the Majestic in 1911, the first space built in Portland specifically for the purpose of showing films, and one of only two theaters on the West Coast at that time to perform live musical accompaniments to their silent films.
By the 1920s, around fifty movie theaters were in operation around the city. Although many of these spots have changed owners, shifted focus, been demolished or renovated in the decades since, no matter how much time has altered them inside and out, a spark of that Golden Age of Cinema lives on. Something about a lit up marquee on a quiet street stirs the imagination and restores some magic to an activity that has lost a lot of the wonder it once held.
Below is a sampling of this history.
NW: 616 NW 21st Ave
Opened in 1925 under the name State Theatre, this cinema started showing silent films accompanied by a live organ and orchestra. It became The Vista, then 21st Avenue Theatre, and finally adopted its current name, Cinema 21, in 1962.
Locally owned, Cinema 21 hosts films festivals, has premiered prestigious films like ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hostel’, and has hosted directors including Steven Soderberg, Mark Duplass, and Tommy Wiseau (they still regularly do late night showings of ‘The Room’).
NW: 13 NW 6th Ave
First opened as the Princess Theatre in 1911, the Star has been reimagined many times over the decades. Initially a silent movie theater, it became a burlesque theater in the 1940s, and then an adult theater featuring erotic films and live strip shows in the 1960s. The Star closed for a while before reopening as a restaurant and nightclub, and then finally becoming the live music venue it is now in 2011.
The original neon sign out front was rebuilt to celebrate the theatre’s 100th anniversary.
Notably, the Star was part of an important Oregon Supreme Court case in 1987: City of Portland vs Tidyman. The city sued the theater’s owner for showing a film that violated an ‘obscenity’ statute (this was during the time the Star was known for showing pornography and hosting live sex shows). The court ruled that the theater was not in violation due to free speech laws, an outcome that directly led to the expansion of strip clubs around Portland.
NE: 2735 E. Burnside Street
This art deco theater opened in 1923 as a single-screen venue that could fit an impressive 650 people. Now the Laurelhurst has four screens and also operates as a pub, serving food, beer and wine.
NE: 4122 NE Sandy Blvd
Turning onto Sandy Blvd in a relatively quiet part of Portland, the striking and glamorous marquee of the Hollywood will stop passersby in their tracks. In a city filled with cinemas, there is no other theatre in Portland whose facade can rival that of The Hollywood’s.
The Hollywood originally opened in 1926 as a silent movie theatre equipped with an 8-piece orchestra and an organist. The spot was such a destination that the entire neighborhood was dubbed ‘Hollywood’ as a result.
This elaborate historic landmark was bought by the nonprofit ‘Film Project Oregon’ in 1997, leading to a major restoration after decades in disrepair. Now the theatre is admired for its use of film projection, hosting of creative film series, and showings of classic movies.
NE: 7229 NE Sandy Blvd
Opened in 1925 as a single-screen theater that had seating for 600, the Roseway was remodeled in the 1950s and again in 2008.
SE: 7818 SE Stark St
In the Montavilla neighborhood of Portland, The Academy Theater opened in 1948 before closing and becoming office space in the 1970s. The theater was brought back to life in 2006, designed using historic photos of the marquee and lobby.
SE: 2021 SE Hawthorne Blvd
A small theater on Hawthorne Blvd, CineMagic first opened as the Palm Theatre in 1914. It took on its new name in 1991, and remains one of the most affordable theaters in Portland with general admission tickets selling for $8.
SE: 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Also on Hawthorne, the Bagdad opened in 1927 as a place to screen movies and to host orchestra performances and concerts. Middle Eastern architectural elements were incorporated as part of its Persian design theme.
McMenamins bought the theater in 1991 and remodeled it to include a pub alongside the movie theater (which still seats 700 and includes a balcony). The lobby bar creates speciality cocktails inspired by what movies are showing at the time.
SE: 3451 SE Belmont St
In 1913, the Sunnyside opened on SE Belmont. It became the Avalon in the 1930s and specialized in sci-fi and horror films in the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1980s, the theater was divided into smaller screening rooms and the largest area was converted into an arcade. The Avalon continues as an arcade that also shows second-run films – and is supposedly haunted.
SE: 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave
Since 1991, the Aladdin has been well known in Portland as a live music venue.
It first opened as a vaudeville house in the 1920s, however, before converting to a movie theater in the 1930s, and then an adult movie theater for over thirty years.