Pleasure palaces

From Salem to Spokane, the Northwest's great movie theaters are springing back to life
Susan G. Hauser

Northwest movie palaces

You know the moviegoing drill. The drive to the multiplex, the quest for parking, the shuffle through the lobby that has all the grandeur of your dentist's office and, at last, you search for cinema 7, or maybe it's 9.

But once upon a time, going to the movies was an occasion ― a chance for patrons to share in the elegance they glimpsed on-screen, in movie theaters that drew inspiration from Morocco or China or the Italian Renaissance.

Thankfully, across the Pacific Northwest those glamorous days are returning. In the 1920s heyday of the movie palace, some of the finest theaters in the nation were built here. Many of these gems have been lost, but a few have been saved by preservationists and citizens working to protect both the architectural and cinematic past.

SHAKESPEARE'S CASTLE IN SALEM

"The most fun part of my job is taking people into the lobby for the first time and watching their jaws drop," says Gail Ryder. She's talking about one of the most heartening recent successes of movie-theater restoration: Salem, Oregon's Elsinore Theatre, where Ryder is executive director. As its name indicates, the Elsinore is a theater with Shakespearean roots ― it was built to resemble Hamlet's Elsinore.

The Shakespearean theme is found throughout the lobby, from the canvas murals depicting scenes from Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet to the exquisite stained-glass windows. Painted by Albert Gerlach of Portland's famed Povey Brothers Stained Glass Studios, they show Hamlet, Portia, and Lady Macbeth, as well as Denmark's Kronborg Castle (the real Elsinore) at sunset.

The Elsinore opened in 1926 with a showing of Cecil B. DeMille's The Volga Boatman. But like many of the movie palaces, it doubled as a vaudeville house. Over the years, the theater fell victim to neglect. In 2001 Salem citizens began a $3.1 million restoration that thus far has included redoing the façade and the lower lobby and adding a state-of-the- art technical stage system. The Elsinore also boasts one additional movie-palace essential: an 11-ton, more than 1,700-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ, regularly played on silent-movie nights by theater house manager Rick Parks.

FINDING RESONANCE IN ASTORIA ...

Like Salem, scores of other Northwest cities have theaters now being restored. In Astoria, Oregon, the Italian Renaissance-style Liberty Theater was built in 1925, designed by Portland firm Bennes & Herzog, which also designed Portland's Byzantine-style 1926 Hollywood Theatre (undergoing gradual restoration since 1997) and 1927 Middle Eastern-style Bagdad Theater & Pub (a brew pub-cinema).

The Liberty was converted to a multiplex in the 1980s. But now, with the theater's $5.5 million restoration scheduled to be completed by next January, its original features are being returned to their past splendor, including murals of gondolas gliding across Venetian canals.

Once again, the theater is a performing arts center with live acts. Stephen Forrester, an Astoria newspaper publisher who helped spearhead the restoration, says that today's performers are as impressed by the theater's acoustics as the stars of yesteryear were: "Singers just love this place. Orchestra people love it. The sound has a real resonance to it."

... AND IN SPOKANE

In suitably melodramatic fashion, other Northwest movie theaters were rescued just in the nick of time. The Fox Theater in Spokane, Washington, one of the finest examples of art deco theater architecture in the nation, was about to be replaced by a parking lot when the Spokane Symphony bought it from Regal Cinemas in 2000. More than 1,200 citizens contributed $1.5 million to purchase the Fox for the symphony's new home.

Built in 1931, at the height of the Depression, the Fox was designed by architect Robert C. Reamer, who also designed Seattle's Chinese-style 5th Avenue Theatre, the 1927 Moorish-style Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham, Washington (restored as a performing arts center in 1996), and, incidentally, the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park.

When the Fox's $28.4 million restoration is complete, the symphony will take the stage in light cast by the beautiful four-tiered sunburst chandelier. Made from glass, aluminum, and gold leaf-covered plaster moldings, it is meant to resemble a treasure from King Tut's tomb.

That stage isn't the only bit of Egyptiana you can find in Northwest theaters, and for a good reason: King Tutankhamen was often in the news when these palaces were being built because his tomb had just been discovered, by Howard Carter, in 1922. For the rest of that decade, the archaeological find influenced theater architects. The best Northwest illustration of this motif is the Egyptian Theatre in downtown Boise, which was built in 1927.

In 1977, the Egyptian, then called the Ada, was scheduled to be razed. Boise businessman Earl Hardy bought it, renovated it, and returned its original name. A full restoration was completed in 1999, making the auditorium resplendent with 14-foot-high Egyptian figures painted in vibrant colors. The Egyptian is now a performing arts center as well as a cinema. It shows first-run films and, on special occasions, silent movies accompanied by the theater's original pipe organ.