Secret Screens: Your Guide to Oregon’s Best Unsung Movie Theaters

Time for a cinephile-friendly road trip!

While Portland’s moviegoing culture runs famously deep, there’s a much wider landscape of Oregon film exhibition. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimates over 60% of the state’s cinemas have five or fewer screens, and many such locations exist far away from cineplexes and arts hubs.

For the cinephile’s summer road trip, we’re highlighting some of the best Greater Oregon movie theaters, particularly those that are independently owned, historic and distinctive.

Daring Programming: City Lights Cinemas (Florence)

Most small-town Oregon theaters show blockbuster films, while college towns and larger cities have the art houses. Bucking that trend, City Lights Cinemas screens everything from David Cronenberg to music docs to livestreams of the National Theatre.

“Even smaller communities have diverse populations—and many of those folks are looking beyond the mainstream,” says City Lights co-owner Michael Falter, whose theater boasts a membership of over 1,000. “We want to be a part of the arts landscape on the coast, and we have to look beyond the blockbusters to do that effectively. But I’ll happily put dinosaurs on screen any day.”

Fantastic Façade: Eltrym Theater (Baker City)

In the history of Oregon theater design, one name pops up repeatedly—Day Walter Hilborn. The prolific architect designed more than 30 Pacific Northwest theaters in the ‘30s and ‘40s, including the Cameo in Newberg, the Odem in Redmond and the Kiggins in Vancouver, Wash.

Baker City’s Eltrym is among the most striking still around, with its aqua and burnt-orange color scheme and art deco leafing. Named for founder Myrtle Buckmiller, the Eltrym currently shows first-run films on three screens.

A Hidden “Gem”: Bijou Theatre (Lincoln City)

A half-century ago, the word bijou (or jewel) was such a common theater name that it appeared in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn as a quintessential rural example. Moreover, the theater-tracking website Cinema Treasures estimates at least 230 defunct American theaters were once Bijous. The last one standing in Oregon is the Bijou in Lincoln City (RIP to Bijou Art Cinemas in Eugene, 1981-2021).

Co-owner Keith Altomare is as proud to carry on the Bijou name as he is to frequent the theater lobby asking for audience feedback on films.

“We believe in the philosophy that the ‘show starts on the sidewalk’ and try to entertain from the second you reach the front door,” he says. “The moniker Bijou is and always will be part of history.”

Cinema Oasis: Desert Historic Theater (Burns)

The only way to defeat a movie desert…is to screen movies in the desert. From Eastern Oregon’s Burns, it’s over 100 miles in any direction to the next silver screen, which only amplifies the significance of the Desert Historic Theater and its bubble gum-pink exterior. Built in 1948, the theater is currently owned by “Tiny” Pederson, who told NW News Network in 2016 he hardly turns a profit and keeps the theater open mostly for local kids.

Unlikely Exterior: Sisters Movie House (Sisters)

Art deco, pillbox brick and ‘80s mall-core are all standard theater aesthetics. A big red barn? Not so much. But owner Drew Kaza says Sisters Movie House fits so seamlessly with the Central Oregon town’s “faux-Western” vibe that many passersby never realize it’s a theater.

“We couldn’t have a big neon marquee,” Kaza says, though he can operate five screens that show blockbusters, indies, docs and “any movie with a horse in it.” It’s safe to say it’s the only theater in Oregon with ax handles for door knobs.

Uninterrupted: Redwood Theater (Brookings)

Dozens of Oregon movie houses are 75 and up, with familiar stories of closing in the ‘70s, breaking up larger auditoriums, and surviving via crowdfunding. But dating back to 1909, Brookings’ Redwood Theater is among the very oldest still showing films regularly.

Per its website, the Redwood (formerly the Pine Cone) has never ceased operation in 113 years, weathering both the Spanish flu and COVID-19.

Honorable mentions:

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of Oregon theaters. Dozens of undersung movie houses keep cinema alive despite economic and technological challenges. Cheers to a few more:

Columbian Theater (Astoria)

Pix Theatre (Albany)

Kuhn Cinema (Lebanon)

Rio Theatre (Sweet Home)

Pine Theatre (Prineville)

Granada 3 (La Grande)

Columbia Theatre (St. Helens)