Nearly a dozen years ago, well before the first flowering of nightlife in the Eastside Industrial District, three former bartenders began scouting spaces in the neighborhood for their new indie-chic rock venue, East End. The Osborn Hotel building, a 19th-century relic currently leased by the kitschy Elvis Room, seemed almost perfect.
"It was in our budget," says co-founder Tony Mengis, "but the landlord started slowly talking about odd things, like the staircase, the inconveniently located bathrooms—and then later mentioned someone had been living in a room downstairs since the '80s."
That was Walt Curtis, the painter and novelist often called Portland's unofficial poet laureate, whose 1977 work Mala Noche became the first feature film directed by Gus Van Sant. Although Curtis had survived previous tenants without incident—an '80s Thai buffet, 'the 90s acoustic venue Rabbit Hole, the '00s goth club Noir—his new neighbors offered rather different temptations.
"I had nothing to fucking do with East End," Curtis says. "It was a basement studio space next to the bar and the bathrooms. Young pups would be waiting to piss or doing cocaine outside my door, and I'd let some of them come in."
Customers typically ignored him, Mengis says, thinking he was "a homeless guy who snuck in or drunk uncle to one of the bands." Sometimes, though, late-arriving patrons outside the restroom would follow the mad-eyed sexagenarian inside his hidden, art-strewn lair. They'd end up perusing his collection of imported European erotica and shooting the shit until he inevitably passed out.
"Walt was part of the East End team," says the bar's co-owner Michelle McDonnell. "The one that would walk around with bottles of wine and pour samples for people in line, have guests sleep over who would leave bleary-eyed out the back as we arrived to work in the morning. The one who would sometimes get really drunk and sort of aggressive. The one who fell off his bike all the time and constantly had a head wound, but also the one who basically guarded the space 24/7, and was really interesting and smart."
All involved, however, agree the turning point came when guests noticed an antique firearm on the floor of Curtis' room.
According to East End's owners, Curtis angrily brandished the old shotgun in front of two guests. Curtis says it was all a misunderstanding.
"I had my father's old single-shot shotgun by the door," Curtis says. "It didn't work. It was a theater prop. That was the fucking point. There was this schizo drag queen from [San Francisco]. I could see his eyes looking at the situation and realized he was going to call the cops. Sure enough, my lovely landlord, Lew, says, 'You have a gun in the room? The cops are gonna shoot you.' And, so, I got my 30-day notice."
The next morning, McDonnell spotted Curtis disposing of the prop in a nearby dumpster.
"We confronted him, and he seemed really bummed. He told us it was from a play," McDonnell says. "But, to the kid that he pulled it on, it had been real."
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