SCREEN STAR: OVERHAULED HOLLYWOOD THEATRE STEALS THE SCENE
There may be a lot of movie theaters in Portland, but one would be hard-pressed to find one other than the Hollywood Theatre that could sell out a showing of an obscure kung fu flick on a Tuesday evening with a bad weather forecast.
But it's actually easy to do for the Northeast Portland theater, which has evolved beyond existing as a brick and mortar location selling movie tickets to the latest blockbuster flick.
An embracer of the unconventional, another "crazy" idea three years in the making will finally come to fruition soon when the theater's annex location at Portland International Airport opens in the C Concourse for the traveler looking to pass some time.
"It was just one of those sort of crazy ideas," says Doug Whyte, Hollywood Theatre executive director.
He was inspired when he read a New York Times article about a theater in a Hong Kong airport, and then he engaged Portland International Airport on the idea. Apparently, the folks at PDX already had given the idea some thought.
The airport has an arts and entertainment program and both parties thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase local artists.
"The Hollywood Theatre ties in nicely as part of our art and entertainment program," says Kama Simonds, spokesperson for the Port of Portland, which runs the airport. She adds that staff hopes travelers will "enjoy viewing some of the short films by local artists and/or films about travel and transportation that are planned for the theater."
Whyte adds, "That's one of the main reasons we're doing it. It gives us the opportunity to help accomplish our mission of exposing the art and film of Oregonians."
The location will show an hour's worth of short films that will change every three months. Though the theater is expected to open in February, an exact date hasn't been set yet. They are still waiting on delivery of 18 seats from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Port of Portland donated the space, meaning the theater can't make any money off of it.
There will be no tickets, concessions or merchandise — just the seats, and standing room for 10 to 20 people.
"We're just making the final decisions for the first round (of movies)," Whyte says.
They're working with film schools and Portland State University to keep submissions coming in.
Secret sauce: celluloid, community
The Hollywood Theatre has come a long way in its ability to accomplish a large-scale project like that at the airport.
Not long ago — a measly six years — the theater at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. was in bad shape and had about six months to last.
"It was either in six months we shut the doors ... or go for it and mix up the programming and start fixing the building to make it more interesting and vibrant," says Whyte, who came on board as executive director when the theater was struggling.
He boosted eccentric film lover and collector Dan Halsted from a projectionist to head programmer.
"Given his history of collecting films and knowledge, he's just an unconventional film programmer compared to the rest," Whyte says.
"For whatever reason, I'm good at finding (stuff) that's impossible to find," Halsted says.
It's almost always Halsted's loud, excited voice announcing ahead of a special event — such as the kung fu nights. At a recent showing, he riled up a sold-out audience before the film began by telling his story of how he came to collect kung fu prints, his specialty.
"It's the genre I care about the most that other people don't care about, that I've been able to specialize in," he says. "Because when I was first trying to find prints of those movies, no film archives had any." He says film archivists would laugh at him and say, "those are the movies we throw away."
"I said that's incredibly racist and horrible. I can't believe you treat those movies that way," Halsted says.
It really comes down to his love of regular old film, which he says has a soul that digital technology lacks.
"I mean I love movies, and I think I hate digital. I think digital is some weird imitation of film that doesn't quite capture the soul of cinema that film has," Halsted said during a tour of his immense film archive in the basement. He says he watches movies with audiences all the time and notices that film engages an audience in a way that digital doesn't.
"There's something about film, 24 frames per second, that marks with the human mind," he says.
He says moviegoers thank him all the time, and he sometimes is baffled by the turnout. A Tuesday night showing of the 1978 kung fu flick "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" — a rare 35mm print of Halsted's — sold out despite snowy forecasts.
"Like who would think we would show that movie we just watched and it'd be a sold-out show. Even when it's snowing, they don't even care. Like, that's amazing," he says.
Whyte says showings that are advertised as 35mm actually sell more tickets, and he thinks 70mm screenings helped put them on the map.
The theater began the 70mm series in 2015 with "2001: A Space Odyssey," which repeatedly sold out. It's the only venue in Oregon to offer 70mm showings.
"It sort of blew us away how many people are interested in doing that. I think we kind of underestimated how many people would get into it," he says. "We know for film lovers, it's a pretty special thing."
Halsted says they're not sure what the next 70mm showing will be, but that they're definitely planning on screening "The Sound of Music" sometime soon.
"That's one big epic we haven't done," he says.
Another thing they haven't done — yet — is show a film on nitrate, an old type of film that stopped being produced long ago because it's highly flammable.
"Someday I do want to be able to run nitrate here. You have to have a fire marshal come in and you have to have a ton of weird things done to the booths so you can even run it," Halsted says.
Hollywood Theatre, at this point, appears nothing short of unstoppable.
The theater, which first opened its doors in 1926 as a 1,500-seat silent movie theater, has come a long, long way.
Organizers restored paint colors, renovated auditoriums with new seats and curtains, installed new surround sound systems, put in a new 50-foot screen in the main auditorium and, one of the most noticeable efforts, installed a new marquee based on the 1926 original.
The Hollywood Theatre continually sells out shows every weekend, has boosted membership from 300 to 3,000 in a matter of a few years, and, Whyte says, the few volunteers at the theater are so loyal there'd be a mutiny if the theater tried to get rid of the volunteer program.
"You know, it's all the community events we host that I think makes us really valuable. (We're) not in it just to make a buck. We partner with so many other nonprofits and community organizations to fundraise," Whyte says.
So what's next? Well, something big is on the horizon, Whyte says, but they can't talk about it just yet.
"There is a sort of big development we're looking at and maybe in the next month or so we may announce it," he says.
In addition, although much progress has been made in terms of renovations, the theater still has lots to do.
Whyte says they need to complete a massive fundraising effort of $3 to $6 million for other renovations. Downstairs bathrooms aren't wheelchair accessible, old carpet needs to be replaced and the building needs seismic retrofitting, among other things.
"When I started, we thought about doing (a big campaign), but we didn't think we had enough community goodwill, yet," Whyte says. "We've kind of existed on lots of small donations from a lot of people. Lately we've been getting lots of bigger donations so we can take care of the work that needs to be done."