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Auditorium with a past stages a sound recovery

The Aladdin Theatre's fortunes change with the neighborhood

Panhandlers outside the Aladdin Theatre vividly illustrate the Brooklyn neighborhood's emerging gentrification.

'Excuse me,' a gravelly voice asks hopefully. 'Could you lend me a credit card for 10 minutes?'

Such casual bonhomie reflects the recovery staged by the blue-collar neighborhood, which borders the old Southern Pacific Rail-yards. Early 20th-century houses are proudly restored by new owners happy to be five minutes from downtown via the Ross Island Bridge.

And the Aladdin, at 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., which previously saw hard times as a porno theater, is sharing in the recovery. With about 600 seats, it's perfect for up-and-coming performers or relaxed old-timers; 2002 was the Aladdin's busiest year yet. Last year saw 160 shows, says general manager Tom Sessa, and this year promises to be even busier.

Built in 1928 as Geller's Theatre, the Aladdin was originally a vaudeville house on the West Coast circuit, complete with an orchestra pit under the stage and rumors that Jack Benny once played there.

It was rechristened as the Arabic-themed Aladdin in 1932 perhaps to match the Bagdad Theater on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and played first-run movies for 20 years. The advent of television in the early 1950s drove owner Sol Maizels to foreign art house films and down a slippery slope to the Danish fantasies 'I Am Curious (Yellow)' and 'I Am Curious (Blue)' in 1969, which were banned as obscene.

However, business was brisk enough that pornography seemed a prosperous alternative, and surreptitious movie-goers were soon able to learn who was 'Behind the Green Door.' After Linda Lovelace launched 'Deep Throat' in 1972, the Aladdin screened it for either eight, 10 or 14 years, according to different accounts.

In 1990, the Aladdin was sold to a group led by neighboring violin maker Paul Schubach. Since its 1993 revival as a music venue by promoters Steve Reischman and Sally Custer of Showman Inc., some performers haven't been able to resist the chance to tell 'Deep Throat' jokes from the stage.

There's even a copy of the film floating around the old projection room, Reischman says, but he wisely decided not to show it, even as a joke.

'We watched the Clinton Street Theater try it and get a lot of complaints,' he says. 'We were such a big part of the neighborhood revival we'd have been in big trouble.'

Add-ons an attraction

As part of refurbishing, Reischman connected a next-door apartment to the theater to create dressing rooms and office space. The resulting eccentric and cozy environment has attracted singer-songwriters such as Richard Thompson, Al Stewart, Joe Ely, John Prine, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Joan Armatrading and Paula Cole. Emerging divas such as Diana Krall and Norah Jones have made their first visits to Portland at the Aladdin.

Audiences are typically older than at the Roseland or Crystal Ballroom but are guaranteed an 8 p.m. start in most cases and a reasonable interval between acts, so that few shows go beyond 11 p.m.

It's partly for the fans and partly for the neighborhood, says manager Sessa, who's very happy with local relationships.

A broader base

Reischman sold Showman Inc. to his assistant Mark Adler in 1999, and Adler is broadening the Aladdin's musical base. Rows of fixed seats mean the Aladdin is poorly suited to rock shows where people want to dance, but Adler has struck another responsive chord with Portland audiences.

'We've had a lot of success with retro bands the Little River Band, Savoy Brown and It's a Beautiful Day.'

Adler says the past six months at the Aladdin have been the best ever and marvels that the Australian theatrical group Puppetry of the Penis attracted 3,000 people in eight nights, which suggests some of the old crowd may still be reading the billboard.

But the strangest show, Reischman, Adler and Sessa agree, was the Russian Cat Circus.

'They had about 30 cats doing all kinds of tricks,' Sessa says. 'The Russian community got behind it and it did really well.'