A tale of two theaters

The Bagdad Theater at 36th and SE Hawthorne Blvd.

By Emily Liedel

The original entrance to the oldest building on SE 37th and Hawthorne is at 3634 SE Hawthorne Blvd, now the second entrance to the Bridgeport Ale House. A line of bare lightbulbs illuminate the arched doorway.

When the building opened in 1911, that was the flashy entrance to one of the first movie theaters in SE Portland.

The Frances building was the first commercial building in the area, and served as an anchor for businesses on Hawthorne. Rudolph Christman built the Theater with storefronts on Hawthorne calling it the Frances building, after his wife.

In addition to the storefronts on the first floor, there were medical offices, a public meeting hall and apartments on the second floor.

The Echo was part of a boom in theater construction. When it opened in 1911, there were 38 theaters in the city of Portland. A year later, the number of theaters had nearly doubled to 62. Financially, the Echo Theater was an amazing success.

The theater was only 16 years old when it fell victim to its own popularity. Looking to expand, Christman partnered with a local theater chain, Multnomah Theater Corporation, to build the Bagdad Theater right across the street from the Echo and its manager, Edward Fautz, became manager of the Bagdad. The Echo’s movie days were over.

Echo Theater was used as a warehouse until 1984, when Do Jump moved in and began using the space for live theater and acrobatics classes. It is the oldest theater of its type left in Portland. (The Avalon Theater, built in 1912 on SE Belmont and 35th, is the only similar theater that likewise maintains its original look and feel.)

The Bagdad was built to be the centerpiece, not just of a commercial boulevard, but of an entire neighborhood. It takes up four lots and rises to a maximum height of five stories. The exterior had stucco walls, red tile roofing and wrought iron works.

The theater cost $100,000 to build, of which $25,000 alone was spent on the state-of-the-art organ.

The exact architectural style is hard to pin down, but has been described as Spanish, Moorish, and Middle Eastern. At the time, ‘themed,’ theaters were fashionable, and the theme was undeniably Middle Eastern. The theater was described as an “oasis of entertainment,” and when it first opened, even the ushers wore Middle Eastern costumes.

The theater’s architect, Lee Thomas, designed many other important buildings in the city, including Reed College’s original buildings. (Right after building the Bagdad, Thomas designed the Oriental Theater, an Asian-themed theater located at SE Grand and Morrison from 1928. It was demolished in 1970.)

The neighborhood eagerly awaited the theater’s opening, and the opening extravaganza on January 14, 1927 did not disappoint.

Portland Mayor George Baker, a former theater owner, spoke at the event, sharing the stage with visiting Hollywood stars including silent movie actress Marilyn Mills and her horse.

The ceremony included a complete blackout on the boulevard as the marquee was lit and searchlights shone into the air.

The Bagdad could seat 1500, but there were hundreds that night who couldn’t get in and celebrated outside in the January rain.

Universal Pictures, which had partnered with Multnomah Theater Corporation, was the deep-pocketed backer financing the construction and spectacular opening ceremony. The collaboration meant that the Bagdad was able to show first-run movies from Universal.

For years, the Bagdad was the only theater outside of downtown showing first-runs. Leon Strashun, the orchestra director until 1931, was also spectacular. He was a Russian immigrant who had studied with Peter Tchaikovsky and had played lead violin at the Metropolitan Orchestra in New York.

Bagdad’s current, neon-lit marquee was installed in 1937, and in 1941 the theater was acquired by Ted Gamble, who ran a Northwest vaudeville circuit. Under his management, the Bagdad became an important stop on the vaudeville circuit, and a young Sammy Davis Jr. performed at the theater frequently during the WWII era.

Larry Moyer took over the theatre in the 1970s. He put in a second theater in the original balcony, and a small third one where the original backstage and dressing rooms had been. In 1975, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Michael Douglas came to the Bagdad for the Oregon premier of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

McMenamin’s acquired the Bagdad in 1991, and reunited the balcony and main theater area. Since then, they’ve hosted premieres of My Own Private Idaho and Michael Moore’s The Big One.

The backstage theater was used as storage until 2006, when it became the Backstage Bar.

A tale of two theaters

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