In 1915, there were 70 theaters in Portland. There was the Egyptian, the Oriental, the Acme, the Clinton Street and the Ideal, where ticket prices ranged from five to 15 cents. On Broadway, vaudeville shows, theater productions, silent and talking pictures and newsreels all played at theaters like the 1,500-seat Hellig (renamed the Fox and torn down in 1997 to make room for the Fox Tower). Built in 1910 (with its cornerstone laid by actress Minnie Fiske), the Hellig was at that time the largest theater west of Chicago and played host to both Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt.
But only a handful of other pre-war era theaters remain standing. Some, like the 1915 Clinton Street and 1925 Roseway, still show movies. Others, like the Ideal, which stood on Northwest Thurman Street, have been converted to something else (you can still see the theater's name on the building's east side). If you pay close attention, you can see the telltale signs that some of those boarded-up buildings on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard or Southeast Foster Road were once neighborhood moviehouses. But most of the rest are gone like the Hellig, reduced to rubble by wrecking balls with no respect for history. Where the Acme once stood is now an Emanuel Hospital parking lot; a gas station occupies the corner of North Lombard Street and Portsmouth Avenue, where the Portsmouth Theater was built in 1913.
As part of the Oregon History Center's ongoing Portland! exhibit, Meet Me at the Movies traces the history of the cinemas and vaudeville houses that once graced many a Portland neighborhood. It includes photos and historical overviews of many of the theaters, with programs, posters and the wonderfully ornate plaster sculptures that adorned the Oriental.
Let's face it. With only a few exceptions--like church and school--there's probably no place more significant to the development of most Americans than the movie theater. So much of who we are, what we are and what we think we should be is defined within the walls of the local cinema. We've learned about courage and fear, love and heartbreak. The films that flicker across the screens have shaped our greatest hopes and expectations.
But just as important as the movies themselves are the places we go to see them. If film is art, and if art mirrors life, doesn't where we go for our art also reflect who we are? Neighborhood theaters like the St. Johns and the Moreland have taken a back seat to the suburban multiplexes. Theaters are now part of shopping malls, where considerations of quantity are more important than quality. As we degenerate into a cyber-surfing culture of drive-thru addicts and fast-food junkies, our choice of where we go to be entertained is reflective of what we're becoming.
Meet Me at the Movies and the entire Portland! exhibit serve as wonderful reminders of where we came from. Sadly, it also serves as a disturbing look at where we've gone.
Oregon History Center
1200 SW Park Ave., 306-5198. 10 am-5 pm Tuesday- Wednesday and Friday- Saturday, 10 am-8 pm Thursdays, noon-5 pm Sunday.
$1.50-6. Children under five free.