By J. Michael Kersey
The Clinton Street Theater has stood on the corner of SE 26th and Clinton for a hundred years. A photograph of the building appeared in The Morning Oregonian in 1913 citing it as the Kleist Building named for owner Edward Kleist. Originally named Clinton Theater, it opened to the public on March 1st, 1915 with the The Exploits of Elaine, a predecessor to the Perils of Pauline.
The Clinton became the 26th Avenue Theatre in 1945,The Encore in 1969 (its x-rated phase) and in 1976 the “Clinton Street Collective” bought it. The group (artist Jim Blashfield, Joe Uris, Lenny Diener and David Lifton and others) published the Clinton St. Quarterly with poetry by Walt Curtis and John Callahan’s cartoons. It was this incarnation that brought The Rocky Horror Picture Show for its first run.
In 2003, Seth and Nicola Sonstein purchased the business. The couple was involved with film festivals, founding the Portland Underground Film Festival. They added a new heating and air conditioning system, fixed the seats and bathrooms and connected with the Indie Film community.
Then, last spring, Lani Jo and Roger Leigh bought it, just prior to the hectic annual Filmed By Bike Festival.
The new owners are creating a new, exciting theater.
“We don’t want to be a first or second run movie house,” Lani Jo explained. “We want to be eclectic in our film choices, present documentary films and we want to be community activists and support local non-profits like the Native American Youth organization or Save the Wild Salmon. We will continue to support the Indie Film community and its festivals. We will continue to show both 35mm prints as well as the movies on the new digital system.
“And we will,” she added with a wide grin,” continue to feature the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight on Saturday.”
The Leighs have been together for 26 years, mostly in New York, and in Portland the last 11 years. Lani Jo is a writer, poet, hospice volunteer and a documentary filmmaker who has produced documentaries on housing volunteers in rural Nicaragua, a theater group among teens at Southeast Portland’s Dougy Center and a film on women training for a marathon run.
Roger works on website development for the OSU Extension Service when not at the theater. “Roger takes care of the infrastructure: the new sound system, the heat and projection issues,” Lani Jo notes. “I do the booking, promotion, organize the volunteers and buy the supplies. You can’t go through to the tavern anymore but we sell beer and wine right there in the lobby.”
The midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have kept the place on the map for international inquiries over the years. The Clinton Street claims the longest continuous run of this movie in the world. This April the movie celebrates its 35th anniversary!
Rocky stars Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf and touches the heart of alternative sexual issues with creative abandon, lively music and campy/glammy humor. Since the first showing in 1978, it has attracted rowdy, fun loving and dramatic crowds.
The group, Clinton Street Cabaret, has volunteers who pick and train cast members since there is a live performance of the movie on stage while the movie is shown. The show has become a favorite for the LBGT community, especially teens, who find much to identify with in the twisted, rollicking plot.
The Clinton Street has a rare English 35mm copy of the film, which contains an extra song not seen in the US version, but that film, along with many others Lani Jo seeks to screen, may be replaced by digital versions as major studios and distributors have begun to limit the use of film in major chain theaters.
20th Century Fox owns the rights to Rocky Horror, collecting a hefty 35% of the profits each week. It is among the companies forcing movie houses to buy digital format projectors at $40,000 each. That puts a real squeeze on the 7800 remaining Indie theaters. Studios save millions shipping digital versions of movies and as Technicolor Labs has closed, there is only one true film lab, DeLuxe, that still makes new 35mm prints. As in the music business, there is controversy as to what looks and sounds better.
The Clinton Street has presented vaudeville, B movies, Indie films and punk and folk music concerts like Greg Brown, Ferron, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, benefits of all kinds and nights with film makers John Waters, Bill Plympton, Crispin Glover, Harry Shearer David Arquette and others.
It is believed to be the longest continuous operating movie house West of the Mississippi. With new energy and new equipment and a couple of great new owners, we can expect many good things in the future.
As Lani Jo Leigh explains: “1913 was the building year for this place and 2013 will be a re-building year. We are very excited to be here to do the work that needs to be done.”
Clinton Street Theatre has already created several fund-raising bridges with the community:
• In Other Words Bookstore chooses speakers, movies or other programming the fourth Wednesday every month. In February they’ll show Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders, the award-winning film recounting the lives of female leaders in the Civil Rights Movement and the first Black women allowed into the U.S. Senate chambers in nearly 100 years.
• KBOO-FM has a monthly night supporting its community radio efforts. Their night may be about radio, about any of their many programs heard on air– and lots of music. This month KBOO feature’s Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
• People’s Co-op has a night on food issues the Third Monday of every month with discussion after each screening and CST offers members a discount on all shows.
• There are special Music Mondays, Bad Movie Nights, a Steampunk Film Festival, the Reel Relics rock movie series, premieres and plenty more.