Playing a Part in the Performing Arts

Written by Holly Cullom

If you love the performing arts, Portland is a wonderful place to be. Our city is full of theaters and performance halls offering access to films, plays, and music of all varieties. Recognizing the value of the arts in making Portland the vibrant city we love, the talented craftspeople at Versatile Wood Products have been proud to lend their skilled hands to preserve and restore of some of our city’s most historically and culturally significant venues.

The exterior of the Hollywood Theatre during light snowfall on March 14, 2020.

In the early 1900s, during the era of silent film, Portland was home to many movie theaters, and our theater-building peak came around the mid-1920s. In the dawn of the silver screen, silent films were accompanied by organists, and more elaborate movie palaces, like the Bagdad and Hollywood theaters, even featured live orchestras. Theaters also were frequently used for vaudeville shows featuring singers, actors, dancers, magicians, contortionists, psychics, ventriloquists, comedians, and strong men, though vaudeville began to dwindle once the “talkies” were introduced and films became more widespread and sophisticated.

Posters and promotional images for vaudeville acts of the early 20th century.

While some stunning examples sadly went the way of the wrecking ball, like the ostentatious, ornate Oriental Theater (1927) that was demolished in 1970, preservationists have saved quite a few of our city’s most treasured architectural relics. Cinemagic (1914), Clinton Street Theater (1915), Laurelhurst Theater (1923), St Johns Twin Cinemas (1925), Hollywood Theatre (1926), Cinema 21 (1926), Moreland Theater (1926), Bagdad Theater (1927), and the Academy Theater (1948) are a few of Portland’s beloved historic theaters that remain standing today.

The interior smoking room and stage at the elaborately designed Oriental Theater, built in 1927 and demolished in 1970.

Today, Portland is listed by several sources as one of the top cities for film lovers in the US due to the number of movie theaters, film festivals, indie theaters, and film societies we have per capita. Our annual film festivals include the Portland International Film Festival, Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival, Portland Women’s Film Fest, Portland Jewish Film Festival, QDoc, Filmed by Bike, and the Cascade Festival of African Films, among many others.

For local cinephiles, one favorite place to catch a film is certainly the Hollywood Theatre. Built in 1926, the Hollywood Theatre was originally a “1,500-seat silent movie palace complete with an 8-piece orchestra and organist.” Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater is one of the few in the US that shows films in 70mm format. Film buffs love old-school 70mm for providing a clearer, crisper image and better sound quality than the newer 35mm format that is most commonly used today. In fact, in 2015, world-renowned director Quentin Tarantino himself stopped by the Hollywood Theatre for a showing of his film “The Hateful Eight.” (To learn more about why people love 70mm, watch this video featuring Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, and the crew of “The Hateful Eight.”)

The beautiful custom doors Versatile created for the Hollywood Theatre restored the entry’s original 1926 beauty.

So, if you think the Hollywood Theatre seems like a special place, you’re right, and Versatile Wood Products was thrilled to have a part in preserving the theater’s unique charm. Versatile replaced the previous aluminum entry system with gorgeous sapele mahogany doors that feature a continuous 16’ header and concealed motorized opening hardware. These custom-built doors were modeled after the 1926 originals, but provide ADA accessibility, energy efficiency, and increased safety. (Check out Versatile’s video about the doors’ creation here.)

The new Hollywood Theatre doors awaiting installation (left) and the door installation at the theater (right).

In the neighboring cities of the larger Portland metro area, there are some wonderful historic theaters as well. Some have been repurposed and are now serving different functions, like the Hill Theater in Hillsboro, an Art Deco theater built in 1937 that now houses an antique mall. On this project, Versatile helped give the Hill Theater a much-needed facelift. The exterior façade was painted, the neon-lit marquee was repaired, and Versatile added a beautiful sunburst detail with new lighting to the underside of the marquee.

The historic Hill Theater in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Southwest of Portland in Corvallis, Oregon, the Whiteside Theatre is another wonderful historic landmark worth saving. An Italian Renaissance structure built in 1922, the theater was first built as a venue for the vaudeville circuit and silent films. After preservationists successfully fought to protect the theater from demolition in the early 2000s, the theater was saved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Contributing their significant expertise to the project, Versatile created poster cases for the exterior of the building to replicate the originals. This feature needed to be historically accurate, yet durable, so Versatile used Forbo Bulletin Board and solid brass hardware.

Poster cases installed by Versatile on the exterior of the Whiteside Theatre in Corvallis.

Beyond our city’s beautiful old movie palaces, other equally interesting venues await, delighting audiences with diverse offerings ranging from opera to punk shows, design workshops, stand-up comedy, and more

The intricate windows of the Hawthorne Theatre before restoration.

The Hawthorne Theater started its life nearly 100 years ago as a Masonic lodge. Today, it’s an all-ages performance venue hosting rock, metal, punk, hip-hop, indie, and hardcore bands. Versatile restored the structure’s intricate original windows in 2018, helping preserve this historic building on one of our city’s best-known boulevards. Erica Witbeck, Versatile’s operations manager, told the Business Tribune,”It’s a job we [were] uniquely qualified to do. We brought back one of the badly deteriorated original units to use for reference. Since our reproductions [were] installed adjacent to restored originals, an exact match [was] critical. We replicated the profiles on the glass stops, the overall size, the sash thickness, and the configurations with precision.” Because Versatile specializes in historically accurate custom wood sash, cabinetry, doors, and millwork using traditional techniques, they are an obvious choice for architectural preservation projects.

Details from the restoration of the Hawthorne Theatre windows.

Versatile Wood Products also brought these skills to the restoration of The Old Church Concert Hall, a beloved Portland landmark. Designed by architect Warren Heywood Williams and completed in 1882, this architectural stunner is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now the site of hundreds of concerts, performances, and cultural events each year. Versatile created the custom redwood doors for The Old Church twenty years ago, and recently updated the look of the box office with a custom-designed cutout.

An ornate door Versatile created for The Old Church (left) and architectural drawings for the restoration of decorative woodwork on the church’s façade (right).

When it comes to replacing period doors and windows, Versatile provides expertise, skill, and quality that is unmatched in the Portland area, and they are proud to play a part in preserving these local cultural landmarks for decades to come.

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