Pillars of Portlandia

How a proto-Portlandia based on a WW column turned into the biggest debacle in local TV history.

On Dec. 14, 1983, Portland was poised for TV greatness: America's first regional soap opera.

Portland station KOIN pre-empted regular CBS programming for a locally produced original movie, Pillars of Portland. Based on a WW column and filmed on a shoestring budget by an amateur crew (including a young Gus Van Sant), the debut got fawning press coverage from across the country. The front page of that morning's Wall Street Journal anointed Pillars harbinger of a coming boom in episodic regional TV ventures. "It may have been a television first for a network affiliate," they wrote. "It was a very nervy thing."

But by that night, the director had disappeared, the producer remained in seclusion, and the writer-creator fell into a deep depression. Pillars of Portland was both our city's first mass-media success and the greatest debacle in Portland television history.

No one's seen it since 1983. Few today have even heard of it. But we found a copy, and we'll be showing it for free at the Clinton Street Theater at 7 pm, Thursday, Jan. 22. (Be nice to them and buy plenty of beer there.)

Here is the story of Pillars of Portland, in the words of the people who made it.

“'Pillars of Portland' was my weekly column for Willamette Week. The characters were stereotypes of their neighborhoods. Wes Hills belonged to the MAC club. Grant Parks worked at a bookstore. Al Ameda was a lawyer, a snob. Sandy Burnside was…very confused.” —Author Larry Colton, writer-creator of Pillars of Portland, Wordstock founder, former WW columnist  

"Pillars was a fairly well-known commodity, but I was just told the show was going to have a bunch of crazy characters in Portland. And this is before Portland was Portlandia. There was no hipster cachet." Jeffrey Kauffman, jazz musician, Pillars of Portland composer

"I was already stepping back from the column when I got approached by [director] Tom Chamberlin and a woman named Evelyn Hamilton. She was a dilettante ready to put up the initial money to get the project going." —Colton

"She was a very exceptional person—way out there, one of Buckminister Fuller's first people – I shouldn't say first, but she was a real advocate—and into computers. In 1973 or 1974, she went to Dar Salaam carrying a Sony Portapak to interview the Dalai Lama for a beautiful movie." —Pillars of Portland director Tom Chamberlin

"[Hamilton] had no experience as a producer, but she had a lot of money. If I remember correctly, Tom's only professional credits came from directing a couple of those old Encyclopedia Britannica educational films they used to show in grade school." —Kauffman

"The idea was to shoot this two-hour pilot, and, if it was good, then we would make it into a weekly show. In a way, it was cutting edge. No Hollywood actors. No Hollywood technicians. Why do you have to go to Hollywood to get the talent there? If we can do this here, you can do it in Omaha. So, we were thinking: We'll franchise it!" —Colton

"The film community was just taking off. The claymation movement was starting. But the community itself was pretty small. Numbers-wise, there were only maybe 10 people in town doing film and making a name for themselves." —Actress Jane "Laurel Hurst" Ferguson

"By Portland standards, this was bigger than Ben-Hur." —Colton

Based on a 20-minute pilot about group therapy that used Colton's characters, local station KOIN agreed to put up some funding and allow use of its equipment. Money nonetheless remained scarce.

"We sold site sponsorships: We'll come and film a scene in your place if you pay us $5,000. We don't know what the scene's going to be, but we'll make something up. After we sold a location spot to Franz, we had the character Laurel Hurst bring her ESL class on a field trip to the bakery accompanied by her estranged husband, Grant Parks, and he's putting the moves on her while 30 Vietnamese kids in little Franz hats watched loaves of bread come down the chute." —Colton

“Fast forward thirty years. A close friend takes a bunch of movers and shakers down to Bandon Dunes on an annual golfing trip. Coming back, the guy sitting across from me in the private jet was Bob Albers, who’s been president of Franz for thirty some years, and he somehow puts it together that I was the guy from Pillars of Portland. He starts yelling: 'You fucker! I trusted you! We've never had anything that went over so badly with our board of directors! They thought it was horrible!' Thirty years, and he didn’t forget.” —Colton

"The whole thing was a case of the blind leading the blind. Tom had no idea how to direct. Evelyn had no idea how to produce. I had never scored anything near this level before and decided to just prerecord the music and stick it in where it fit. This was all done completely backward. Nobody knew, excuse my French, what the fuck they were doing, but we ended up getting it done anyway. —Kauffman

"It was revolutionary—so revolutionary we didn't need a script." —Colton

“Pillars was just a lark—Evelyn did stuff like this all the time. One day she had me come up to her house, told me about the project, said they needed a score, took out a $100 bill, slapped it down on the piano in her front room, and said ‘Okay, let’s hear it.’  She wanted me to just sit down and immediately create music for the show, sight unseen.  I wrote the main theme right there at the spur of the moment with a $100 bill literally under my nose.” —Kauffman

"Wooly haired Corky Hubbert, also known as the world's tallest midget and the mini-Bob Dylan, was a very talented guy. He wrote a column in a local magazine. He also was lead vocalist in a band that played downtown; Corky wailed chestnuts like "So Sorry That I Came On Your Dress," and as an actor scored parts on Magnum PI, Under the Rainbow (with Tom Cruise) and the Hunter Thompson opus Where the Buffalo Roam. So it was a big surprise when the only part in Pillars of Portland he could squeeze out of the director was as a deaf, dumb and blind midget baseball ump. Worse, he had a broken leg and I guess was left mostly just hobbling around in the rain during the shoot and, well, it went downhill from there."  Mark Christensen, co-author of the 1984 book The Sweeps: Behind the Scenes in Network TV

"This was the worst-run project in the history of art…. Tom decided we needed something at the Rose Festival, and, once he got the camera and the crew and an actor—dressed all eccentric as Northwest hipster gadfly character Marshall Lovejoy III—we end up shooting a chase through the Fun Center. Nobody knew who Marshall Lovejoy was, we don't know what he's running from or if anyone's even chasing him, but Tom thought it would be cinematically interesting. That was pretty much how everything went." —Colton

Some scenes were filmed at the compound of the cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh—a year before his lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, and other members of the cult committed America's first bioterror attack by attempting to poison every salad bar in The Dalles with salmonella.

“KOIN wanted me to see if we could do a nude scene at Rajneeshpuram. The bigshots were thinking maybe we can sell rights to HBO. So, up near Bhagwanville, two buses unload about a hundred Rajneeshee who take off their clothes, go out canoeing on the lake, cavorting around while we’re filming them. According to the agreement I originally negotiated with Sheela, our crew was supposed to be nude as well, but this was a very cold day in late September.  I think only the director took off his shirt, because it was freezing.” —Colton

"We spent three days at Rajneeshpuram—a very, very bizarre experience. We had to live in this little house.  We had to deal with Sheela.  They had these events with dancing, gambling, food. This was not fun. Not unfun, but it was work.  This whole project was a lot of work." —Ferguson

"The ranch was awesome! Bars and a Vegas style â€œspiritual” gambling casino, an airport and hundreds if not thousands of Rajneeshee trust fund girls who ran in naked herds like X-rated deer through the hills. I got to play cards at the casino with the Rajneeshees' second-in-command, sloe-eyed raven haired Sheela, who was lots of fun until she decided to start killing people.” —Christensen

The show made back its money, and received a 23 share—better than Family Ties and The Facts of Life—but reception was mixed from critics and the audience.

"The day it aired, I went over to the house of the actor who played Grant Parks, and, about an hour into the show, his neighbor comes out on the driveway and cups his hands together and yells, 'Boooooring!' That was the first hint I had that it was a disaster." —Colton

“Pillars is like a ball of multicolored yarn, gathering as it rolls willy-nilly down a hill. But it all unravels in the end.” â€”Kristi Turnquist, “The Pillars of Portland: Pros and Cons,” WW, Dec. 20, 1983

“The premise was group therapy. You’re gonna go follow a character and come back to group therapy, and then go out again. But the director made a decision right toward the end not to use the [therapy] scenes, so there was nothing connecting. There was no narrative thread to the story. There was no production value because we did it on videotape. There was no drama, no suspense, no turning points—none of that exists.” —Colton 

"I don't remember any through line. I don't remember any arc of the story. It was just a mishmash of vignettes: a scene at a baseball game, a scene at a hot tub, a scene at Rajneeshpuram, a scene in my kitchen. It was trying to say too much about too many things, and also trying to walk a line between serious topics like immigration and these ridiculous names! How can anyone take Laurel Hurst and Grant Parks seriously?" —Ferguson

"It was a very invigorating and exciting thing for about the first two thirds until the shit hit the fan. There came a point where it was just going to go down, and that's what happened. And it's easy to say 'oh, this person or that person did this or that'. We were, even at forty, pretty young. Larry and I were both privileged white boys with inflated ideas about our own importance, and I'm sure that came into play." —Chamberlin

“I still think it was a great idea, a fabulous idea. We had an opportunity. It was right there in front of us, and we blew it.” —Colton 

"It was disheartening for a lot of people who had very high expectations. At the same time, when people get together to talk about Pillars of Portland, they're always laughing—there was something crazy about that project." —Ferguson

"I didn't stay very long [after the premiere]. Evelyn and I went to San Francisco to do a soap opera called In the Shade of the Gate. It never got made, but we tried for a couple of years. Then, I went to Lucasfilm and worked on The Battle for Endor and Howard the Duck". —Chamberlin

“It got done. It was on prime-time TV, it got written up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, and we paved the way for Portlandia. I keep waiting for Carrie Brownstein to call me up and say, ‘Thank you very much, you took the bullets for us.’ At least, let me have a walk-on cameo in the background. You know, some old guy sitting in the corner mumbling into his coffee: ‘I could have been somebody! My Pillars of Portland could’ve been the best thing ever!’” â€”Colton

GO: Pillars of Portland will be shown at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., at 7 pm on Thursday, Jan. 22. Free.

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