By Jack Rubinger
Woody Wheeler and his business partner, Prescott Allen, first got involved with the Laurelhurst Theater in July 1999. They took over the business and converted the venue into a theater pub operation in January 2000.
A laid back dude who digs hanging out with this family and barbecuing chicken, Wheeler enjoys the challenge running this type of theater and keeping track of all the details, including daily maintenance of the 95-year-old building.
What’s new and exciting lately at the Laurelhurst is the change from showing second run movies to first run movies.
“We’re making the change to first run to attract more customers and hopefully stay in business,” said Wheeler. “Our admission prices are the lowest that the studios would allow and we haven’t changed our concession prices. We just had our first weekend as a first run theater and it was super busy. Hopefully that trend continues.”
While there are other theater pubs in the area serving real popcorn and local beers, the main competition in terms of content is the Internet. There are so many ways to easily watch movies other than going to a theater. Fortunately, Portland seems to continue to be a strong market for old-school movie theaters.
Selecting movies to show is a lot of fun. The partners consider what they think audiences will enjoy, films that currently have a good buzz and positive reviews. Input from staff is important, too. Though Wheeler doesn’t have a show business background, he’s fond of both classic films like North by Northwest and most Wes Anderson films.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of this business is the sense of community movies can provide,” said Wheeler. “There’s nothing better than being in a packed auditorium and experiencing a film as a group. The communal laughs and sighs, all the audience responses to the thing we’re all experiencing together.”
Like much of Portland, the neighborhood has changed dramatically since 2000 with lots of new restaurants, condos and apartments popping up here and there. The funky Chinese restaurant across the street from the theater seems like an ancient memory now. The quiet little neighborhood has evolved into a busy scene that draws people from all over town.
A good portion of the theater’s success depends on the films being shown, but weather and other events and happenings around town also impact attendance. Beautiful days and Blazers in the play-offs can mean a slow night.
Renovating the Laurelhurst is an ongoing and continuing process. Things are always breaking or wearing out. The partners have replaced the roof, all the HVAC systems, all the booth equipment and sound equipment. All of the surfaces in the auditoriums have been replaced multiple times as well as the seating. They completely replaced the marquee a few years back. All that neon in the marquee takes a lot to keep going.
The lobby gets a face lift every couple years and a major overhaul about every 5 or 6 years. In the last month, the team has completely refurnished the lady’s room, redid the 2 smaller auditoriums with new flooring, seats, and lighting. They painted the lobby and added a photo booth. They’ve added online ticketing and did cosmetic updating of the two large auditoriums. Future plans call for integrating hearing impaired devices and streamlining box office operations.
The Laurelhurst Theatre is located at 2735 E Burnside St. See laurelhursttheater.com or phone 503.232.5511