I Love Old Movie Theaters

This is random. I love old movie theaters.

It started when I got my first “real” job at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland in 1994*. In the 90s the Hollywood would admit you for $1.50 to watch a double feature. Sandy Boulevard was blistering with pretty aggressive prostitutes and Johns, junk dealers, and a lot of down-and-out types who needed somewhere to duck in for a few hours. I saw a lot of crazy things go down. I sold tickets, then “moved up” to selling candy and popcorn, then I started taking an interest in the building itself and became the “maintenance girl.” Not a janitor, though I did do a lot of blowing popcorn around with leaf blowers (sorta fun) and scraping chewed gum off carpets after freezing it with GUM OFF (also sorta fun). Nope. I was given the keys to the building, the alarm code, and allowed to show up any time to fix things up. Because by then the Theatre was already 70 years old, and falling apart in front of our eyes. It needed constant care. Everything was broken. Everything leaked. Everything was pretty gnarly and gross.

But it was a treasure! Only a few of us knew that behind the raggedy, soda-stained wall curtains were beautiful trompe l’oeil murals and that behind the old Cinerama screen was an amazing vaudeville stage and orchestra pit. So only a few of us saw the potential and the beauty and hung in there. It is a treasure.

Because you can still hardly tell even if you visit today, I’ll show you some pictures of what hides behind curtains and paint:

Hollywood Theatre Lobby - Portland Oregon

Hollywood Theatre Stage - Portland Oregon

Hollywood Theatre Auditorium Wall - Portland Oregon

The more I explored the place alone, at night, the more in love I grew. There was so much to discover, so much strange old history so foreign to me as a teenaged Alaskan in Portland. Ladders in the back led up to cavernous concrete rooms which used to hold hundreds if not thousands of pipes. The pipes were long gone, but back in the first year the theater opened, they were blown by the Wurlitzer organ to thrill the house during silent films. A year later talkies were the new rage and they became obsolete**. A hatch in a West-facing outside wall used to take deliveries of ice blocks, which cooled the forced air in the hot summertime. Every seat held thousands of memories, and sometimes coins fallen from pockets. Tips for me. And that’s not even beginning to think about the magic of the movies themselves…

Think of any other type of building where people go and almost always enjoy themselves thoroughly, despite themselves. A movie theater is one, and I can’t think of many others. Movie theaters are magical, especially the ones that were built to embody magic. The Hollywood Theatre is so magical that the entire neighborhood was named after it.

Hollywood Theatre - Portland Oregon

Hollywood Theatre - Portland Oregon

Hollywood Theatre Entrance - Portland Oregon

For some reason it came to be that I was the only person in Portland who would crawl up through a narrow, ragged hole in a 16″ concrete wall and into the rafters to change the auditorium lightbulbs. Hanging on Carnegie steel I-beams, bouncing on 20 foot-long 2x10s, crawling along narrow planks, and finally splaying myself, spreading my weight on the plaster lathe ceiling so as not to fall through, I’d change the bulbs, looking 50 feet down to a most certain death. I’ve been changing lightbulbs at the Hollywood Theatre for nearly 20 years. This year I was told that they are hopefully switching to LED lights soon, so I will not be needed any longer. It’s a little sad.

Today I changed the lightbulbs for maybe the last time. FYI, this is what the crawl space looks like, for the most part:

Hollywood Theatre Crawl Space

When I got down the ladder I chatted with Connor, the Operations Manager. It’s become clear over the past couple years that the Hollywood Theatre now has its act together. They’ve got good prices, great concessions (real butter for the popcorn, beer on tap, and pizza from next door***), INCREDIBLE programming (indie movies alongside treasure 35mm prints of kung fu and other rarities, as well as comedy and theater events), and are working hard on the building (new roof, new heating, plush new seats with tables, new screen, new sound, soon to be new Kickstarter-funded marquee, and in a little while, full LED lighting). Connor took me on a tour of the backstage area, which I haven’t seen for years. I couldn’t believe my eyes. If you like movies, film, projection, movie theaters, and maybe even pipe organs, that area might do for you what Disneyland does for a five year-old. First of all, it’s clean and dry. Wow. Second of all, it’s organized. My eyeballs almost popped out. Finally, it’s ALL FILM. Trust me, the Hollywood Theatre is 100% awesome, through and through. It took some time to get the ball rolling in the right direction, but it’s rolling. I’m so happy about it.

If you live in Portland and haven’t been to the Hollywood, now’s the time to check it out. The coast is clear! The seats and bathrooms are no longer Superfund sites, and your feet won’t stick to the floors. You also have some backstory which should make it even more enjoyable. It’s an old theater and a work in progress; though, so give some leeway and be kind. Remember to buy something at the concession stand, because that is how any movie theater really makes its money, and remember to tell your friends or donate to the Hollywood Theatre non-profit if you can. The Hollywood is our treasure.

* I also ran the Roseway Theatre (72nd & Sandy Boulevard, built in 1919) solo a few nights a week for almost a year, had short stints at several other theaters like the Laurelhurst and Cinemagic, and at one point possessed a key to the Fox Theatre downtown.

**As I understood it, Hollywood’s Wurlitzer organ was moved to the Oaks Park skating rink. A false, but very fun, legend. Hollywood’s organ went to the Imperial Skating Rink, then was sold to McDonalds, then moved to a private home in California). The Columbia River Theater Organ Society (bet you never heard of them) has been tinkering with a new organ installation in the Hollywood for a long time now. Shhh! They don’t know this but for a while I knew where they hid the organ key, and I’d take it for a spin at night when nobody but me could hear. In those moments, my only dream in life was to simply play a bar or two of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Didn’t happen. But that thing can make just about every other noise in the book. Monkey falling from tree? Check. Dog getting kicked? Check. That thing is CRAZY.

***Though I still whine every time they tell me they don’t have any frozen Junior Mints. Argh! That’s the BEST way to eat them!