Hollywood Theatre – Scandal and Intrigue in the Roaring 20′s

Many people don’t know this, but the Portland Hollywood District gets its seedy and scandalous name from the Hollywood Theatre, a neighborhood centerpiece opened on July 17, 1926 by entrepreneurs...

Many people don’t know this, but the Portland Hollywood District gets its seedy and scandalous name from the Hollywood Theatre, a neighborhood centerpiece opened on July 17, 1926 by entrepreneurs Claude Jensen and John von Herberg (of the notorious chain known as “Jensen Von Herberg” that owned a large share of theaters in and around Portland at the time). Located at 4122 NE Sandy Blvd, the theater gets its namesake from the ground-zero big-momma of the film industry – Hollywood, California. Designed by architects John Bennes and Herman Herzog, the theater’s Byzantine exterior complete with rococo tower, terracotta finish and recently restored flashy steel and neon sign, stand out like a bright warty thumb among the nearby modern block and brick facades.

Though the building now holds 3 theaters, seating a total of 838 people, originally it was a single large 1500 seat vaudeville and “moving picture” venue, complete with balcony, 8-piece orchestra, and $40,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ (this was still the time of the silent film). Adult tickets sold for a quarter and children could weasel in for a dime. The heavy hitters of the day could pay 40 cents for premier seating in the front lowest section of the theater where they could lounge back and suck down rum-laced cigars and gold-plated sliders, unencumbered by the destitute and filthy masses.

Hollywood Theatre made headlines in the early 60′s when it was the first and only venue in Oregon that had the bulky and expensive equipment need to feature “Cinerama” films back when the panoramic technology was all the rave. What the hell is “Cinerama” you ask? Utilizing cutting edge technology that strung together 3 video cameras in order to simultaneously shoot and then display a film across a 16 x 6.5 foot screen while also featuring a seven-channel stereo system, Cinerama blew the minds and eardrums of audiences accustomed to a single-strip picture displayed on a tame square screen accompanied by a monophonic soundtrack. The first film under Cinerama, entitled “This is Cinerama”, featured beautiful panoramic landscape shots and a breakneck first person ride shot from the point of view of the roller coaster. However, the technology stuck around for only a couple of decades, plagued by limitations in the recording process due to the wide screen which led to distorted facial features, a significantly increased set size (to dress up all of the area that the camera would constantly capture), and an overpopulated set that distracted viewers from the actors and dialogue in any film that contained anything close to a plot. After only 7 total Cinerama movies were shot, the format became obsolete as it was quickly replaced by several less cumbersome, albeit smaller in scale, single-strip panoramic formats.

Cinerama notwithstanding, the Hollywood Theatre has undergone many changes since its opening, including a downward spiral into a discounted second-run theater in the 1960′s that paralleled a similar decline in the popularity and glamor of the surrounding Hollywood District. In 1983 it saw its first glimpse of salvation when it was listed on the National Register of Historic places and then, in 1997, it was purchased for $400,000 from Act III Theatres by the nonprofit organization Film Action Oregon (the purchase interestingly included a $250,000 donation from the very same Act III Theatres). Following years of ongoing rehabilitation that again seems to trace closely to the Hollywood District’s own recent revival, the theater has since returned to hosting independent films, movie premiers, director discussions, and other live events. Tickets now sell for about $6.50 for non-members except on Mondays, when patrons receive a $2.50 discount.

For more information about Hollywood Theatre and Film Action Oregon, visit their website at http://www.hollywoodtheatre.org/

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