Looking at the Hollywood Theatre today, it would be reasonable to think that little has changed since its glory days, which spanned from the vaudevillian shows of 1926 to the Cinerama screenings starting in 1961. 

Hell, folks who were around in the late '50s might have flashbacks this weekend, when the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo screens in glorious 70 mm (7 pm Friday-Sunday, July 17-19). The sight of patrons lined up down the sidewalk, illuminated by the newly restored marquee, signals that the theater is once again a movie palace. 

We almost lost it. 

Imagine, if you will, the Hollywood District without the Hollywood Theatre. That's the picture painted by the theater's unofficial brain trust—programmer Dan Halsted, community and programs director Justen Harn, executive director Doug Whyte and marketing director Kristy Conrad. 

Sipping the custom Vertigo Effect beer that Fort George brewed to celebrate the theater's 89th birthday, the folks behind the curtain said the recent revival of the Hollywood could have just as well been its demise. The birthday brew is a light ale that's modeled after Prohibition-era pales like something they would've poured at the theater way back when-—it's light and sweet. Their story is not. 

The decline began in 1975, when the theater changed from a first-run destination to a second-run afterthought. It was basically left to fester, its original façades painted over as the basement filled with debris and junk. 

When a fire claimed the building next door in 1997, it nearly took the theater down and the owners wanted out. But its fate wasn't certain until the Oregon Film & Video Foundation (now called Film Action Oregon) took over, switched to arthouse programming and made it a nonprofit.

Of course, you can't just put Jim Broadbent's name on a marquee and hope that the senior centers fill the auditoriums. The theater languished for 10 years as a sleepy arthouse yawner. The seats stayed empty. 

Then, though, in 2011, something changed. Whyte was named executive director, and he knew shit needed to change. 

"There was no energy, no money, no pizza, no beer," Whyte says. "I didn't want to watch a movie here, and I work here."

Then a complete 180 happened. The artsy movies remained, but Halsted and Harn stepped up with some much-needed fartsy in the form of cult marathons, B-Movie Bingo, Hecklevision and live-scored classics. The old seats were replaced with comfy ones. Now the theater has become a paragon of modern cinema-going, embracing film as a social medium while using its nonprofit arm to nurture Portland's future filmmakers. 

If that sounds gushy, well, it is. It's insane to think that we were so close to losing this resource. Metropolises like New York and Chicago consider the concept of a theater pub novel. Here in Portland we have more than a dozen, with the Hollywood leading the pack and drawing eyes from across the nation to see what a theater can truly be. 

Just look at the crowds who show up religiously for Kung Fu Theater. The lines that wrap down Sandy for 70 mm. The loyal folks who come out for weird-ass underground films of Repressed Cinema. This relic of the golden age of cinema survived doom to become Portland's living room. 

"The space is nothing without the community coming in and feeling like it's theirs," says Harn. "Everybody should have this."

Thankfully, we still do. 

Also showing: 

  1. The 1925, graciously Lloyd Webber-less, Phantom of the Opera gets the Weird Wednesday treatment. Joy Cinema. 9 pm Wednesday, July 15. 
  1. Bad news: Hand2Mouth’s excellent look at mainstream Gus Van Sant has reached the inevitable screening of his Psycho remake. Good news: It’s a double feature with the Vince Vaughn-less original. Clinton Street Theater. 2 pm Saturday, July 18.
  1. Repressed Cinema unrepresses Damon Packard’s Space Disco One, a bizarre film that functions as a sequel to Logan’s Run and 1984 and, miraculously, is even weirder than it sounds. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, July 21.