Hollywood theatre marquee
Image: Leah Nash
Theater Manager Nate Capp places our title on the Hollywood’s soon-to-be-replaced marquee.

IN an anonymous expanse of southeastern Spain framed to look like Texas, three loudmouthed Italian cowboys drink whiskey in a tiny saloon. At a nearby table, a stoic Chinese man, still dusty from the long stagecoach ride that brought him to this middle-of-nowhere watering hole, quietly minds his own business over a bowl of rice.

“Hey, you yellow dog! I’ve got dirty shoes, and I expect you to clean them!” bellows one of the drinkers. Barely parting his lips, the stranger replies, “Why don’t you get it done by that slut of a sister of yours?” 

In the flickering light of this Spanish-Italian-Chinese mash-up of a movie, the cowbullies attack. But the mysterious visitor turns kung fu master, deftly flinging his fork to lance the leader’s meaty paw. The 400 people packing the Hollywood Theatre scream in delight.

The 90 minutes of crude racism, silly comedy, and hokey martial arts (a beating heart torn from a man’s chest draws the biggest cheers of the night) is not exactly a great movie. But in an introduction, the evening’s host, Dan Halsted, draws the audience into the 1973 relic with the panache of a sommelier proffering a distinctive Shiraz. 

“There weren’t very many martial-arts spaghetti westerns made, but this is one of the best,” he says, explaining how the director tried to use kung fu to revive the dying spaghetti western genre. But then Halsted spears his audience quicker than a flying fork: “The only print available is owned by Quentin Tarantino. Quentin runs the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, and I’ve helped him out a few times with films from my collection, so I called in a favor.” 

The Tarantino loan may be exceptional, but the packed house is not. Over the past two years, the 87-year-old Hollywood Theatre has grown into arguably the city’s premier venue for cult and indie film. While many of its peers across the country fall casualty to the creeping convenience of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, the Hollywood has instead experienced two years of 50 percent jumps in attendance, thanks in large part to the growing synergies between a trio of film buffs: collector and programmer Halsted, executive director Doug Whyte, and director of programs and community engagement Justen Harn. 

On any given night, growing squads of fans file in for everything from Z-grade action films to fringe cinema from local auteurs and archivists to amateur horror flicks inspired by the writer H. P. Lovecraft. Similarly, the historic movie house itself has become a collage of old, new, and recycled: behind the 1926 Spanish Colonial façade lie three auditoriums filled with a total of 609 seats and a Surround Sound system salvaged from the now-defunct Regal Broadway 4 Metroplex. Soon the theater will feature a state-of-the-art digital projection system and a restored Wurlitzer pipe organ. And later this summer, courtesy of $124,548 raised from 1,100 contributors to a Kickstarter campaign and helping hands from the likes of Neil Kelly Home Performance, the Hollywood will get a new old marquee—a modern, energy-efficient replica of the one it wore when the theater opened its doors. 

“There are more butts in seats, and that’s the goal of any theater,” says Heather Petrocelli, a film historian with the Reel Portland project. “But the Hollywood is also redefining the moviegoing experience.”

Ben Hur sign at Hollywood Theatre
Image: Leah Nash
Backstage under a sign from the 1959 premiere of Ben-Hur with Justen Harn (left), Doug Whyte, and Dan Halsted

The bronze plaque to the left of the theater’s front door details an earlier time when the building was the central attraction for what was essentially Portland’s second downtown. Built for the then-princely sum of $500,000, it opened on July 17, 1926, with the silent comedy More Pay—Less Work, 1,491 seats, and a staff orchestra of 12 musicians. Named for the theater, the surrounding district blossomed with bungalows, apartments, and, eventually, three department stores, before I-84 spliced it into pieces with freeway lanes and a tangle of ramps.  

In the decades that followed, the Hollywood’s fortunes waxed and waned under a succession of owners, the long lines for the Clark Gable films and war-bond drives turning by the 1980s into spotty crowds watching second-run movies (admission: $1.50) in the increasingly shabby environs. “It was dirty,” recalls local film writer and director David Walker, who put on the Portland Black Film Festival at the Hollywood in February. “There were roaches. People smoked in the theater. And the upstairs theater smelled like a urinal.”

The seeds of transformation began circuitously under the Oregon Film & Video Foundation, a project started by Gov. Barbara Roberts in 1992 to support local filmmakers. The foundation spun off from the state (it would eventually rename itself Film Action Oregon) and in 1997, led by then artistic director Richard Beer, bought the theater to restore it. (The 501c3 organization is now known simply as the Hollywood Theatre.) But the relatively conventional art-house fare of foreign and indie movies failed to yield black on the balance sheet. The nonprofit relies on volunteers for a lot of its popcorn popping and ticket selling, but with help from the Great Recession, by 2010 payroll checks weren’t clearing for its tiny paid staff, and the ledger showed a deficit of $73,000.

Yet, even in the crash, renewal still germinated. Hired as a technical director for the theater in 2004, lifelong film buff Halsted also occasionally rented it out for his Grindhouse Film Festival, showing borrowed prints and his own growing collection of titles, like Master of the Flying Guillotine and The Mystery of Chess Boxing. Harn, a University of Massachusetts and Oxford lit major whose career path had bounced from the financial world to Big Brothers Big Sisters, arrived in 2007 to expand the nonprofit’s educational offerings. But the big dose of fertilizer arrived with Whyte. 

The 42-year-old Wisconsin native, whose laid-back looks belie a firm and decisive manner, had a finance degree and a 17-year résumé of successes, from coordinating a university film series to creating the Emmy-nominated International Documentary Challenge, a timed filmmaking competition in partnership with the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. (He’d even directed a couple of well-received documentaries, including Pushing Up Daisies, a 2005 feature about funeral directors.) While launching an expansion of Documentary Challenge, Whyte and his wife visited Portland, fell in love with the city, and quickly relocated. “We knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives here,” he recalls, “so I started looking for ways to get involved.” He joined the nonprofit’s board and then, when the post was vacated, stepped into the captain’s seat. There were “a lot of problems,” he remembers, “but there was a really great staff. We can turn this around.” 

 

“There are more butts in seats, and that’s the goal of any theater, but the Hollywood is also redefining the moviegoing experience.” 
—Heather Petrocelli, Reel Portland

The trio’s talents—Whyte the builder, Halsted the collector, and Harn the outreach specialist—coalesced. A flurry of grants, new donor and membership recruitment efforts, and on-screen advertising, not to mention the addition of beer to the concession stand, put the theater in the black and boosted the annual budget by a third, to over $1 million. But beyond cash (and pizza service, which debuted this spring), Whyte has nurtured community investment.

A recent walk-through at the theater finds several elderly members of the Columbia River Theatre Organ Society adjusting pipes and speakers for the newly restored Wurlitzer and, in effect, demonstrating what Whyte and his colleagues do best: adding 1+1 to get to 3. Besides paying for and installing the organ, the society’s members will play the organ for the silent films that are already being screened, while adding live musical pre-functions to other Hollywood nights.  

Or take Joel Hamberg, a professional painter and film fan who grew up with the Hollywood (the first film he viewed there: Grand Prix, 1966). Invited by Whyte to do a little painting, he has now given the theater a bottom-to-tower, plaster-to-terra-cotta coating and cleaning—all pro bono. “It was like having a blank canvas,” Hamberg says. “Here was an opportunity to give back to a fallen-down old gem. How could I say, ‘I’ll only give a little’?”

Whyte says his formula is simple: “See what people are good at but also what they’re interested in, and let them run with that.”