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

Susan G. Hauser,  – September 10, 2004

Northwest movie palaces

You know the moviegoing drill. The drive to the multiplex,the quest for parking, the shuffle through the lobby that has allthe grandeur of your dentist’s office and, at last, you search forcinema 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 glimpsedon-screen, in movie theaters that drew inspiration from Morocco orChina or the Italian Renaissance.

Thankfully, across the Pacific Northwest those glamorous daysare returning. In the 1920s heyday of the movie palace, some of thefinest theaters in the nation were built here. Many of these gemshave been lost, but a few have been saved by preservationists andcitizens working to protect both the architectural and cinematicpast.


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

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

The Elsinore opened in 1926 with a showing of Cecil B. DeMille’sThe Volga Boatman. But like many of the movie palaces, it doubledas a vaudeville house. Over the years, the theater fell victim toneglect. In 2001 Salem citizens began a $3.1 million restorationthat thus far has included redoing the façade and the lowerlobby and adding a state-of-the- art technical stage system. TheElsinore also boasts one additional movie-palace essential: an11-ton, more than 1,700-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ, regularlyplayed on silent-movie nights by theater house manager RickParks.


Like Salem, scores of other Northwest cities have theaters nowbeing restored. In Astoria, Oregon, the Italian Renaissance-style Liberty Theater wasbuilt in 1925, designed by Portland firm Bennes & Herzog, whichalso designed Portland’s Byzantine-style 1926 Hollywood Theatre(undergoing gradual restoration since 1997) and 1927 MiddleEastern-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 becompleted by next January, its original features are being returnedto their past splendor, including murals of gondolas gliding acrossVenetian canals.

Once again, the theater is a performing arts center with liveacts. Stephen Forrester, an Astoria newspaper publisher who helpedspearhead the restoration, says that today’s performers are asimpressed by the theater’s acoustics as the stars of yesteryearwere: “Singers just love this place. Orchestra people love it. Thesound has a real resonance to it.”


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

Built in 1931, at the height of the Depression, the Fox wasdesigned by architect Robert C. Reamer, who also designed Seattle’sChinese-style 5th Avenue Theatre,the 1927 Moorish-style Mount Baker Theatrein Bellingham, Washington (restored as a performing arts center in1996), and, incidentally, the Old Faithful Inn at YellowstoneNational Park.

When the Fox’s $28.4 million restoration is complete, thesymphony will take the stage in light cast by the beautifulfour-tiered sunburst chandelier. Made from glass, aluminum, andgold leaf-covered plaster moldings, it is meant to resemble atreasure from King Tut’s tomb.

That stage isn’t the only bit of Egyptiana you can find inNorthwest theaters, and for a good reason: King Tutankhamen wasoften in the news when these palaces were being built because histomb had just been discovered, by Howard Carter, in 1922. For therest of that decade, the archaeological find influenced theaterarchitects. The best Northwest illustration of this motif is theEgyptian Theatre in downtown Boise, which was built in 1927.

In 1977, the Egyptian, then called the Ada, was scheduled to berazed. Boise businessman Earl Hardy bought it, renovated it, andreturned its original name. A full restoration was completed in1999, making the auditorium resplendent with 14-foot-high Egyptianfigures painted in vibrant colors. The Egyptian is now a performingarts center as well as a cinema. It shows first-run films and, onspecial occasions, silent movies accompanied by the theater’soriginal pipe organ.

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