Movies, Pizza & Beer in Portland, Oregon

Kennedy School Theatre - Portland, OR

An alarming number of Vancouver movie theatres have closed in the last couple of years. By the end of 2012, the Denman, the Granville 7 and the Van East on Commercial Drive had all been locked up. Burnaby’s Dolphin Theatres and Cloverdale’s Clova Cinema will both be closed before the end of this summer. Last year saw the end of the Ridge Theatre, a 63-year old Kitsilano cinema that was destroyed to make room for condos. Not too far from the site of the former Ridge, West Broadway’s legendary Hollywood Theatre sat empty and decaying for over a year before being temporarily revitalized as a Pentecostal Church (the Church at the Hollywood had turned the projectors back on and screened several classics on 35 mm over the course of 2013, but currently, however, the building is once again shuttered and empty, facing an uncertain future). Meanwhile, Canada’s largest movie theatre chain, Cineplex, continues to grow: not long after the Ridge closed, Cineplex announced its purchase of Festival Cinemas, one of Vancouver’s last groups of independent movie theatres (which had included Ridge, and still includes the Park Theatre and Fifth Avenue Cinemas). The company has also taken over a number of multiplexes from its rival, Empire Theatres. Cineplex seems to be inching towards a near-total monopoly of the movie exhibition industry in Canada.

While some may be wary of Cineplex’s actions, they are understandable from a business perspective: the corporation is simply attempting to consolidate in an era that sees movie-going well past its prime. We are, without doubt, facing a new reality in which people aren’t as interested in going to the movies as they used to be. Young people in particular are far less likely to head out to see whatever is playing at their local single-screen neighbourhood theatre than their parents were. Instead, they make the longer trip to the multiplex in order to have a variety of movies to choose from – unless they stay home in order to watch the same movies on their laptops. So are we simply observing a shift in demographics and habits; a shift made possible by consumer technology? Is online movie streaming the final nail in the movie-theatre-experience coffin? Are we indeed witnessing the last throes of a slow death that started with TV and continued with cable and home video? Should we resign ourselves to the changing face of filmed entertainment and accept the closures and demolitions of our grand old movie palaces as sad but inevitable?

Not necessarily. Perhaps there is a way to adapt to changes in technology and social trends while also keeping the essence of the movie-going experience intact. Just south of us, Portland, Oregon offers a case study of cinematic adaptation and preservation. Unlike Vancouver, Portland is a city where vintage cinemas are not being closed and demolished. Instead, these heritage buildings are lovingly restored, maintained and still attracting large crowds of movie-goers who are not just being shown films, but are also being immersed in beautiful ambiance and served gourmet food and drinks.

A key player in Portland’s thriving movie-going scene is McMenamins, a company started locally by two brothers, Mike and Brian, in 1974. They have specialized in restoring old primary schools, union halls, churches, power stations and other abandoned buildings and turning them into hotels, cinemas and breweries (their own head office is a former funeral parlour). The Kennedy School Hotel is perhaps the best example of how McMenamins’ preservation, restoration and re-imagining of space works: it still retains the original school vibe (the guest rooms feature original blackboards and cloakrooms) and pays homage to that previous incarnation through displays of historical photos, artwork and mementos, while also being a comfortable, first-rate hotel. Thanks to zoning and liquor laws that might make Vancouver-based entrepreneurs and/or craft beer enthusiasts weep with envy, the Kennedy School – smack-dab in the middle of a quiet residential neighbourhood – is able to feature at least five pubs, each one serving a selection of the company’s own microbrews like their light, graceful Ruby Ale, and strong, flavourful Terminator Stout (December visitors to Portland are also able to sample Kris Kringle Ale, a sensational spicy seasonal offering). One of the Kennedy School pubs, the Honors Bar, used to be the janitor’s supply closet. In this whimsical little bar that might seat 6 or 7 customers in a pinch, hoisting a pint becomes an unforgettably intimate experience. Another, slightly larger pub on the other side of the building permits cigar smoking, while there is also a full-service restaurant on site.

In addition, the Kennedy School features a unique cinema, occupying what used to be the school’s live theatre auditorium. Countless children dressed up and performed on the stage for their parents and families, singing and dancing through Christmas pageants since the school’s opening in 1915 until it closed in the mid-70s. The folding chairs of the past have been removed and replaced with comfy armchairs and sofas, along with mismatched coffee and end tables sprinkled throughout. Guests order beer, pizza and popcorn in the lobby, then head into the theatre to find their seats. Initially, we might have had reason to be suspicious of the pizza, assuming it to be the microwaved slices of cardboard, or the limp, heat-lamp-warmed slabs we have encountered at multiplex food courts. Fortunately, our suspicious proved unfounded: the pizza is made to order using dough prepared fresh every morning, and is personally delivered to your seat (such amenities managed to make sitting through ‘Ender’s Game’ far more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been).

If you’re staying at the Kennedy School, you’re welcome to see the movies free of charge, but the theatre is not just attended by hotel guests. Locals stream to the building for a meal, a pint, a movie – or all three – and the late shows often sell out on weekends. The place, therefore, succeeds precisely because it is not a hermetically-sealed holiday spot designed only for tourists. Instead, it’s a vibrant, colourful and affordable gathering place for the entire community. The school-to-pub/hotel/cinema transformation may occasionally lean towards a kind of Portlandian aesthetic cliche, but it never feels like a kitschy novelty. Instead, the place is warmly inviting, fun and cool – all at the same time.

The McMenamins group also runs the classic 1927 Bagdad Theatre in the Hawthorne commercial district, as well as other movie houses throughout Oregon and Washington. But while McMenamins theatres are prevalent, they are not the only ones: Oregon’s oldest cinema, for example, the Avalon, offers cheap second-run movies along with classic video, pinball & other arcade games, and its bright, clown-adorned exterior still lights up the Belmont District.

Further north on the same side of the river, you’ll find the Hollywood, Portland’s luxurious 1926 cinema, showing off both its elaborate Byzantine facade and its newly-restored sign (closely modelled on the original). The new sign is the result of an enormous campaign that saw local businesses and individuals not only raise funds for the sign, but also contribute the time and craftsmanship required to repair and repaint the lovely sloping walls and ceilings of the lobby (which is decorated with antique film projectors). Quality pizza and local craft beer are also available – both items perhaps having become de rigueurfor movie-going Portlandians – and the rows of seats in the auditoriums themselves are equipped with long tables for snacks and drinks. When one is able to place one’s pizza and pint glass safely on a flat surface instead of having to balance everything in one’s hands while trying to watch the movie, one appreciates the added touch. We’ve reached the point where cinema seats featuring individual cup-holders is no longer a selling point (and this time we had a good film to accompany the good food, drink & comfort: ‘Philomena’, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan).

Other independent Portland cinemas include Cinema 21 (specializing in classic and cult films) and downtown’s Living Room Theaters, with the latter also featuring a full menu and permitting eating and drinking in the auditoriums themselves. While many of us still like going out to see movies, perhaps popcorn, candy & cola are simply not enough to attract customers to our old single or double screen cinemas any more. Some cities in North America have responded to dwindling box office returns by allowing these lovely old jewel box theatres to close and then be demolished and replaced by generic condos, tacky dollar stores or bland fitness centres (the fates of Vancouver’s Ridge and Denman Theatres, respectively – with that city’s Hollywood Theatre only narrowly avoiding becoming a fitness centre in January of this year). In Oregon, however, the response has been different. McMenamins and other theatre owners and operators have shown that if you improve the quality of the experience for movie-goers by creating a beautiful atmosphere that respects heritage and architecture and classic decor while providing excellent service, delicious hot meals and high quality, locally-brewed beer while keeping prices low, people will come. And they’ll come back.

By Curtis Emde, 2014

Click on the image below to see the Portland Photo Gallery.

About The Author

Silmara Emde is a photographer and graphic designer, and Curtis Emde is a writer and teacher. They are based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and together they form the Projection Project - a multi-media venture that documents the changing nature of movie-going as the 35mm film era ends and the digital era begins.