You'd be hard-pressed to look at this place and call it a gem exactly; it's more of a rock, a giant paperweight that anchors the little cluster of hipster/indie businesses at Southeast 26th Avenue and Clinton Street. But it's about to get seriously polished. New owners Seth Sonstein and Nicola Spechko, who bought the Clinton Street Theater from Elizabeth Rozier in September, have set about restoring it to something approaching its former glory.

That's right--glory. One of the oldest still-operating theaters in the country, the Clinton Street opened in 1915. It was renamed the 26th Avenue Theatre in 1945, the heyday of Portland cinema; in '69 it came back as the Encore, and by 1976 it had resumed its original name, the Clinton Street. During each incarnation, which have included stints as a vaudeville theatre and a porn house, new details were added. Look in the right nooks and crannies now and you can still see evidence of the good old days: decorative borders painted around the edge of the ceiling, moldings in the walls alongside the stage. They're only the faintest traces, and Sonstein doesn't intend to re-create the theater's long-gone vintage look; it's the spirit of the place he's after.

Sonstein came to Portland from San Francisco last July to show the popular Sick Puppy Film Festival, which he's programmed for the past four years. When he saw the Clinton Street, he thought, "I'd kill to have a place like this." Turns out he didn't have to; Rozier was getting ready to sell. A month later they'd made a deal, and by September Sonstein and Spechko had moved to Portland and started planning their reinvention of the theater.

One of their first improvements was to add a new heater and air conditioner. It's the first time in history the Clinton's had one, and a major relief for anyone who's ever sat sweating or shivering through a three-hour collection of obscure short films or some long-vaunted documentary--which is to say everyone who's ever gone to see anything at the Clinton Street Theater.

The new owners have also redone the lobby, walls and bathrooms. A sound-system upgrade is in the works, and they're considering options for repainting the theater's marquee, a local landmark. But the main priority is still the one thing that has kept the Clinton Street alive all these years: the movies themselves.

As a small independent theater, the Clinton Street has made its name showing films that wouldn't otherwise have a chance to reach the big screen in Portland. That history, combined with Sonstein's background in underground/independent cinema, means things at the Clinton Street will only get better. Consider, for example, the recent wild success of Stupidity, a documentary whose original one-week run has been extended by popular demand to six weeks and counting. And there's more where that came from. Mid-July brings the world premiere of Decrypter, a digital-video hacker-noir romance partly filmed in the Clinton Street neighborhood; you won't see that kind of thing at Fox Tower. Sonstein is also hosting the much-anticipated Portland Underground Film Festival, or PUFF, in October. "It's a great little niche we have," he says.

Another of his goals is to drum up more support and bigger audiences for local filmmakers. The film scene in Portland is particularly vibrant these days, if a little fragmented; he's hoping a dedicated venue can help things coalesce.

The Clinton Street's backbone is its traditional Saturday-night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has run continuously for 26 years. That, like the other essentials, won't change, Sonstein says.

In other words, the new Clinton Street Theater should be pretty much like the old one, only cooler, louder and better-looking. And, of course, warmer in winter.

Clinton Street Theater

2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899, . Tickets generally $6 adults, $5 students, $3 kids 12 and under; $4 seniors, Tuesdays and matinees. Cash only.

UPCOMING EVENTSThe Lost BoysJuly 9-15

Seth's Birthday BashCelebrate Seth Sonstein's birthday with pizza, beer and movies! Fletch (7:30 pm), Repo Man (10 pm), Friday, July 16. $6. 21+.