Restoring the past
Theaters rise again as community centers
When the Ross Ragland Theater opened its newly renovated doors in March 1989, it gave the town of Klamath Falls more than a new entertainment venue. The Art Deco theater, built in 1940, quickly served as a catalyst for renovation of the downtown area. Side benefits included extension of the city’s geothermal line and a revived community interest in the performing arts. Today, the Ross Ragland Theater and Cultural Center serves more than 100,000 people each year.
The restoration of theater buildings can be an economic engine for towns such as Klamath Falls. The historic preservation group Restore Oregon found in a 2015 study that historic theaters in the state held over 61,100 events that brought in a total of $23 million in revenue. Theaters also provided jobs to 193 full-time staff and 504 part-time or seasonal staff.
Restore Oregon, along with several partners, is in the midst of a multi-year initiative working with Oregon’s 127 historic theaters, hoping to spur further economic redevelopment in struggling downtowns.
“Just as the curtain seems to be falling on the era of the independent neighborhood theater, a counter-movement is slowing taking root across the U.S.,” says the group’s report, Oregon Historic Theatres: Statewide Survey and Needs Assessment. “Fueled in part by ‘buy local’ supporters who favor neighborhood establishments over national chains, many venerable theaters are experiencing a comeback.”
But, according to the report, the health of the theaters is tenuous. The youngest of Oregon’s historic theaters is 66 years old, and most are overdue for repairs or seismic upgrades. Forty-four percent of responding theaters weren’t sure if they would break even this year.
Several theater makeovers have happened in different parts of the state. In Coos Bay, the Egyptian Theatre has served as a gathering place for Oregon’s central coastal communities since 1925. After commercial operations came to a halt in 2005, the theater was converted to a community convening space and operated by the nonprofit Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association. It closed again in 2011 for structural safety reasons, but an active volunteer group raised the $1.3 million necessary to fix the building, and it opened its doors again two years ago.
In the northeastern Oregon town of Athena, community volunteers are working on a multi-phase renovation of the 300-seat Gem Theatre. The Athena Gem opened in 1908 and closed 60 years later, as televisions gained popularity. The theater was donated to the city of Athena in 2004, and when the doors were opened, residents found a time capsule — everything in its place, including film reels and projection equipment.
Volunteers for the Athena’s Gem nonprofit group envision a theater and community meeting space, along with a small museum featuring vintage Hodaka motorcycles, once designed and assembled in Athena. Rental income from an apartment on one end of the building will help pay for maintenance and utilities.
With financial support from the community and grants, volunteers have replaced an outside brick wall, gutted the theater and replaced part of the building’s façade. The second stage of the ambitious plan calls for replacing the roof and moving a wall 30 feet out to accommodate a stage and dressing rooms.
“Theaters are social spaces, economic catalysts, and cultural ambassadors for their communities,” says the Restore Oregon report. “With coordinated support, perhaps theaters will continue to shine as a beacon of community vitality for yet another century.”