Americans witnessed the rise of the movie industry in the first quarter of the 20th century. From its beginnings as a technological novelty and working-class entertainment, by the 1920s the movies had become “respectable” and part of an emerging media-centered culture. Its initial respectability came at the hands of an industrialized and urban public, early participants in the growing consumer-based economy. They shopped at department stores, rode streetcars, read tabloid newspapers, listened to broadcast radio, danced in jazz parlors, and flocked to the vaudeville/movie theaters that lined the urban boulevards and neighborhood avenues. It was the beginning of America’s love affair with the movies.
First Movie Houses
As movies grew in popularity, so did the number of Portland’s movie theaters. In 1910, Portland played host to 30 moving picture houses. By 1915, their number had more than doubled, reaching an all-time high of 70.
Technological advancements did much to influence the design of the newer movie theaters. Innovations such as the Simplex Projector, which improved the visual quality of motion pictures, created the need for specially designed and equipped spaces. Portland’s Columbia Theatre was one of the first establishments in Oregon built exclusively for the showing of motion pictures.
In the 1920s, as technology grew more sophisticated and the business of exhibition became more lucrative, Portland's local entrepreneurs, like their counterparts elsewhere, built movie palaces to replace the smaller theaters that had served the first generation of moviegoers. These halls were built according to grand architectural schemes. As a rule, they were ornately designed, opulently decorated, and richly appointed. Their auditoriums were expansive, with vaulted ceilings, marbled staircases and plush balconies. Usually seating 1,000 patrons or more, they were often equipped with a pipe organ, a house orchestra and a dance troop.
The lavish Heilig (later the Mayfair) converted to motion pictures in the late 20s and boasted the largest stage and most modern equipment of any theater west of Chicago. Like their modest predecessors, the movie palaces showcased live vaudeville acts combined with a varied film program that could include a newsreel, a cartoon, a comedy short, a serial installment, and a feature presentation. Some — like the Heilig — presented live theater and opera.
In 1927, Warner Brothers Pictures captured the imagination of the movie-going public with the release of The Jazz Singer. While not the first movie to employ film sound (Vitaphone films had used sound-on-disk synchronization for effects and background music since 1926), The Jazz Singer was the first to use synchronized sound for dialogue and song. Its success was instantaneous, its implications apparent. The future of the movies was here.
The era of Talking Pictures had arrived, and no theater could afford to lag behind. Downtown palaces like the Helig, the Paramount and the Broadway, each seating over 1,500 patrons, quickly transformed themselves for the new innovation. In 1927, the Blue Mouse Theater at SW 10th & Washington Street presented Portland's first sound motion picture, Don Juan (1926) starring John Barrymore, a Warner Brothers/Vitaphone production featuring synchronized music and sound effects.
The Great Depression
Movie exhibitors, like the rest of the country, suffered serious financial setbacks during the 1930s. Throughout the Great Depression, many theaters were forced to close their doors for lack of customers. Those that survived redesigned their nightly programs to fit new economic restraints.
First to go were the extras: the opulent surroundings, the house orchestras, the traveling acts, and the dance troops. This refocused attention on the motion picture program: the cartoons, the newsreels, the comic shorts, the serials, the “B” pictures and the feature films.
With a shorter entertainment roster, theater owners now offered repeated showings of their programs and enticed customers with giveaways, contests, coupons and raffles. Despite bad times, Hollywood managed to produce a steady crop of movies and attendance continued, even in the worst of years. In the end, movies proved to be the cheapest, most reliable form of entertainment that even tight money could buy.
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden time for Portland’s movie theaters. By then, movies were no longer a simple entertainment but a cultural event. During World War II, Hollywood turned its eyes to the war effort and the movie theater became the center for civic activity. Local owners and managers showed their support by promoting victory gardens, hosting scrap metal drives, and selling war bonds.
In war and in peace, the movie-going experience was predicated on an exceptional level of customer service. Established in the first quarter of the century, it remained the norm to the end of the 1950s. Theater staff — including film projectionists, snack bar attendants, doormen, and usherettes — were polished professionals rigorously trained and ready to accommodate the public in any way.
To that end, they developed elaborate advertising campaigns around new films that brought to town celebrated movie stars, like Jimmy Stewart, Jane Powell, Paul Robeson, and Katherine Hepburn. The goal was customer satisfaction and, to that end, ushers and usherettes were expected to provide hospitable and efficient service. Usherette duties included assisting patrons, reporting vandalism, and supervising motion picture quality.
Despite record attendance throughout the 1940s, several post-war developments brought new uncertainties to the movie business. The most significant of these were the demise of the Hollywood studio system and the advent of television. The breakup of the Hollywood system removed industry control over film exhibition and placed it in the hands of theater operators. While this may have freed exhibitors from their obligations to a single studio’s product, it forced them to find new distributors to ensure a steady supply of merchandise.
Added to this uncertainty, theater owners faced growing competition from television. Hollywood was no longer the only game in town. Portland was introduced to television in 1952 and sales of receiving sets immediately soared. Patrons now had the option to sit at home and watch programming that was free, if less sophisticated.
Movie exhibitors felt the effects of these developments in reduced ticket sales. As a way to lure audiences back into the theaters, Hollywood devised new gimmicks that underscored the size and sophistication of the medium. Cinerama, cinemascope, stereophonic sound, and 3-D features were all part of a new technology that attempted to create a "total" experience for the movie theater patron.
Brave New World
The technological gimmicks of the 1950s were not enough to guarantee Portland’s theaters a steady supply of customers. Over 5,000 movie theaters nationwide went out of business in that decade alone. Only drive-in theaters showed any signs of life, growing from an oddity in the 1940s to nearly 5,000 strong by the mid-fifties. Fueled mainly by the rise of car culture and low-budget, teen-oriented genre flicks, drive-ins flourished for a time. But their attraction proved short-lived and, by the late-1960s, decline had set in.
In Portland, throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many of the theaters that had once graced downtown boulevards and claimed neighborhood street corners fell on hard times. Some were plowed under in the push for urban redesign, and some were divided into multiplexes in order to make them more financially solvent. Many independent movie houses were taken over by national chains that preferred a uniform corporate image to local personality.
Some local theaters survived, however, finding a niche in showing repertoire, foreign-language, art or independent films. At present, the Portland area plays host to fourteen independently operated movie theaters, several film festivals, and an unending devotion to movie-going.