“There wasn’t any other venue to screen those particular films,” says Ron Craig, who grew up in Portland and now serves as executive director of the Portland African American Film Festival and the Astoria International Film Festival.
It hadn’t always been that way at the Alameda, as the present-day Alberta Rose Theatre was known. When Harvey Garnett opened in 1966, as Portland’s only black theater owner, his programming differed little from that of other movie houses. But after a Christmas Day double feature in 1970—the blaxploitation crime comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Learning Tree, about a black boy in 1920s Kansas—generated more business in three days than the cinema had during the previous month, Garnett shifted his focus to films featuring and made by African-Americans. Now, in a revival series called Tuesdays at the Alameda, the Alberta Rose is paying tribute to Garnett—once known as Mr. Alameda—and the blaxploitation classics he screened.
When Garnett opened the Alameda with friend Ron Leverett, the two knew little about the movie business. Leverett—who bowed out of the theater in 1969 to attend graduate school—was a middle-school teacher and Garnett a Pepsi salesman, but with guidance from local cinema mogul Chuck Nakvasil, the two fought to establish the Alameda as a neighborhood theater. Garnett says the Alameda drew a mix of black and white moviegoers, between whom he observed little tension, but that’s not to say he had it easy. He struggled to fill seats in the theater’s early years, and after making the switch to black pictures, he says some film companies would still have preferred to grant booking rights to white proprietors. “Being Afro-American, I had to fight odds that other people didn’t,” Garnett says. But over time, he developed a successful track record and a reputation as a tough-minded businessman.
As the Alameda carved out its niche, the theater became something of a community center. “It was a social flash point,” Craig says. “For African-Americans in that community, the only gathering point was the black churches, so there weren’t a lot of other places to go to.”
People sometimes stopped by just for the music Garnett played: Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Jimmy McGriff. “There was dancing in the lobby,” Garnett says. “They knew I didn’t mind.”
But Garnett wasn’t a pushover: If people talked or smoked during movies (“they smoked that grass back then,” he says), he gave them two warnings before booting them for a month. “On my property, I called the shots,” he says. “I need your business, but I don’t need your hassle.” At the same time, he was apt to deliver dating advice, encouraging women to demand respect and men to deliver it.
“Harvey was tough but fair,” says Portland musician Carlton Jackson, who grew up attending movies at the Alameda and became a projectionist as a teen. “It felt like he was a big brother.”
The movies, too, made a significant impact on Jackson. “It was a centering experience for young people like me to go to the movies and see people of your color in influential roles,” he says. “At that time, we needed to feel like we were included.”
When Garnett closed the theater in 1975 after his divorce, it presaged the area’s shifting demographics. “There was a giant hole in the neighborhood entertainment options,” Jackson said. “It went the way of things that were happening in that day. He closed, and then people started buying up storefronts. All of a sudden I had to search elsewhere for movies that dealt with my people.”
In a small way, the Alberta Rose series offers a return to this time. At the kickoff screening of Shaft in November, Garnett walked to the microphone with a loping gait—a former jock, he now uses a cane due to arthritis in his hip and knees—and greeted the crowd with a wide grin. “Spread the word,” he said. “Mr. Alameda’s back.”
GO: Tuesdays at the Alameda continues with Superfly at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., on Tuesday, Dec. 11. 7:30 pm. $6.