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Going to the theater: Entertainment in early Portland

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DON NELSON - The Moreland Theater opened in 1925. The couple shown on the left in this photo might be Ken and Geneva Cockerline, but that is not confirmed. The Cockerlines purchased the Moreland Theater in 1927; when Ken died in 1946 Geneva and her sister ran the Moreland Theater until about 1976. Chuck Nakvasil is the theaters current owner.When the year 1910 opened, Sellwood was enjoying a time of abundant jobs and bright prospects. Lumbermen earned good wages at the Eastside Sawmill; and at the Sellwood carbarns, the streetcar and interurban railway offered a host of openings for mechanics, conductors, and engineers. For the ladies, The Oregon Worsted Wool Mills and Peerless Laundry offered unique opportunities as wage earners.

In 1910, the first public swimming pool opened in Sellwood Park, the Sellwood commercial club was sponsoring its first entry in the relatively new Rose Festival Parade, and real estate was booming in the newly constructed neighborhoods of West and East Moreland.

But, in 1910, it was the emergence of movie theaters, and a thirst for entertainment, that was most anticipated by the residents.

Sellwood’s first theater arrived on the scene in 1909 when Alfred Griessen opened the doors of The Alpha Theater. Located on the west side of 13th Avenue north of Spokane street, Griessen leased space in the William Strahlman Building.

By the following year, Griessen figured it would be more profitable if he built his own theater instead of renting one. He closed the Alpha, and constructed a two story building of concrete blocks on the southwest corner of Spokane and 13th, where the Griessen family residence once stood.

Newly christened the Griessen building, Alfred’s new structure housed a moving picture show, a stage at the rear for theatrical performances, and a retail store front with large picture windows. He also fitted the upper floor to specifications for a Fraternal Organization, adding a large lodge room, banquet hall, kitchen, and anterooms.

The Sellwood Masons, whose Lodge meetings were being temporarily held in the attic of an old barn at W.H. Killbucks Cabinet and Carpentry shop just across the street, agreed to rent a section of the Griessen Building. Their stay there was brief, however, because not long afterward the Mason’s built a new lodge hall in Westmoreland. Alfred Griessen then converted the second floor of his building into apartments, and office rental space for doctors and dentists.

In 1911, Griessen announced to the public the opening of his new single-screen show-house, the Star Theater. With its 250 seats, the silent films shown at the Star were sold out every weekend. The stage at the Star Theater held fundraisers for the Sellwood School, and was home of “good pictures and Vaudeville”. The Star also presented Traveling Revivals, and became a forum for political speeches.

William Schultz’s pharmacy and drug store on the corner sold candies and drinks to moviegoers after the show. When William Schultz retired, Frank Leipzig moved his confectionary and lunch café, The Leipzig, into the corner spot in what is now recognized by local residents as one of the neighborhood’s oldest existing businesses.

Alfred Griessen died in May of 1911, and his son R.H Griessen took over the reins of the family, but after a short run of nine years, the Star Theater closed. Morgan’s Dry Goods store replaced the Star Theater for the next five years.

Enthralled by the movie and entertainment industry, and the silent films showing at Griessen’s Alpha Theater, William Strahlman had aspirations of one day owning his own movie theater. His opportunity arrived when Griessen closed the Alpha Theater. German born, Strahlman had immigrated to the U. S in 1880, and operated a store in Portland for 13 years before he met and married Julia White in 1893.

Using the proceeds earned from his store, William ordered a two-story wooden commercial building to be built on the northwest corner of 13th and Spokane. By 1915, William was selling tickets to the opening of his new venture, the Isis Theater. His son William Jr. ran the film projector, swept the floors, and ushered the aisles, while his daughter Lillian ran the ticket booth. The Isis Theater became the talk of the neighborhood, and Julia took care of the financial records.

The Stralhman family were all premier entertainers throughout the neighborhood, showcasing their talents at many gala events and celebrations in the community – as noted in several articles at the time in THE BEE. Alice and Lillian Strahlman were available to sing and played current songs on the piano, while William delighted in singing his favorite solos.

Meantime, Strahlman’s Hall on the upper floor offered every sort of event from special St. Patrick Days celebrations to fraternal gatherings, dances, and community events, including the performances of the Sellwood Orchestra.

The Strahlmans purchased a ten-room craftsman house from A.C. Mowrey directly behind the movie theater, and continued showing first class films at the Isis until 1925, when husband and wife retired to the Oregon coast. Daughter Lillian married John Eichenlaub, and she continued her popularity among local residents as the ticket counter girl, when she hired on with the Moreland Theater when it first opened on Milwaukie Avenue north of Bybee Boulevard.

But getting back to The Isis and The Star, the first movies shown were silent films, with the accompaniment of a live pianist or pipe organist. Sound on film wouldn’t be available until about 1927. To add excitement and a sense of action to the films, actors were hired for realism. An actor standing off stage would sing, laugh, or scream to enhance dramatic scenes, while the pipe organ became a standard at most Portland area theaters.

Later, theater owners opted to order movie reel serials that could be ordered via mail-order for a fraction of the cost of hiring part time performers. In 1915, serial films like “The Iron Claw” and “The Perils of Pauline” enticed audiences to return to the theaters weekly, curious to see if their swashbuckling heroes like Douglas Fairbanks or comedian Harold Lloyd could find their way out of terrible predicaments. Meanwhile, in serials intended for lady viewers, audiences rooted for their own favorite, Pearl White – returning regularly to the theater to see if she could outwit or withstand the dastardly laugh and evil desires of moustache-twirling villains.

The community’s third movie theater, and the most grand for its time, was The Sellwood – which began construction on the southeast corner of Spokane Street at 13th. Local residents began referring to this busy section of Sellwood on 13th Avenue as Movie Row.

As observed by local movie historian and film archivist Gary Lacher, before new owner William C. Roach could began construction of the Sellwood Theater, strict fire and building codes now had to be followed and the opening of a theater had to be approved by city officials. Numerous inspections included every last detail of the building, from lamp rooms to the broiler. “Air conditioning wasn’t available in earlier theaters,” reported Lacher, “And many movie houses had to shut down in the hot summer days because of the stifling heat.”

When theater houses first arrived on the scene in 1907, all of Portland had only three moving picture shows available. But, as Lacher revealed, silent films were so profitable that “By 1915 there were 72 movie theaters available for audiences.”

Opening attractions in 1922, on the Saturday of the opening of the New Sellwood Theater, included Norma Talmadge in “Smilin’ Through” and the classic silent film “The Boat”, with Hollywood funnyman and producer Buster Keaton. The show usually included a newsreel, two cartoons for the young kids, and a main feature that lasted about 50 minutes.

The owners of the Isis and the Sellwood soon faced fierce competition when the Moreland Theater announced its own grand opening on September 10th, 1925. West Moreland residents lined the streets of Milwaukie and ByBee for the dedication service, and to hear the magical music of the theater’s new Robert Morton pipe organ.

Built in a Moorish style of architecture, the Moreland Theater had intricate wood carvings and stained glass and arches throughout the theater. Gary Lacher, in his book, stated that “The Moreland Theater is one of the last movie venues in Portland that still contains the original interior from when it first opened – visitors can even view the pipe organ grills,” where live music once livened the silent films shown. Kenneth and Geneva Cockerline became the premier owners of the 641-seated theater in 1927.

To drum up business, and to attract more moviegoers to their theater, the Cockerlines hosted special promotions and giveaways. One of the contests consisted of a drawing for a special “Shaw Sport Speedster” soap box derby racer that was on display of the foyer of the theater. Those who bought a ticket to the shows were given a coupon for the drawing, and the winning number was announced the following week with the prize to be won for a lucky girl or boy.

The movie theater provided business opportunities for neighboring young boys who were hired to drop off “stills” of the coming attractions on neighborhood doorsteps and deliver them to local merchants to dispense to their customers.

Unable to compete against the new palace-style theaters, the Isis Theater showed its last movie in 1924, leaving for the next fifteen years the motion pictures to the Moreland and Sellwood Theaters.

On April 15th, 1938, Tom Moyer – at one time a projectionist at the local theaters – opened the first of his many movie theaters at 14th and S.E. Tacoma. The “new Sellwood”, as Tom named it, became a favorite with for teenagers and high schoolers in the neighborhood.

The old Sellwood Theater on Spokane Street was by then showing film flicks as the “Firefly Theater”, but by 1941 it had closed, and the Moreland and the new Sellwood were the only two remaining theaters in the area.

The Moyer family continued to build and own many successful theaters throughout Portland and nearby towns during the next forty years, but with the popularization of VCR’s, and later, computers, tablets, and advanced phones, movie theaters were considered outdated by the younger generation.

The new Sellwood Theater closed in the 1980’s, and was replaced by the Columba Sportswear store – and only those who remember being in the old theater will see today, in the building, the remnants of a movie hall.

For those wishing to visit one of the very few remaining single-screen movies houses left in Portland, and yet still watch first-run films, a stop at the Moreland Theater is a must. The Moreland Theater continues to be a step back in time – to when owner Geneva Cockerline once patrolled the aisles with her flashlight to make sure that young couples weren’t being too intimate, and ensuring that talking was held to a minimum.

Continue your own research on this subject by buying a copy of “Theaters of Portland” by Gary Lacher and Steve Stone. It’s available at local book stores.

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