Hidden Portland: Reel Estate

Portland's Forgotten Movie Houses

From downtown's gutted Guild Theatre to NE MLK's Egyptian, what's become of the city's early cinemas?

By Margaret Seiler December 21, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Across from Director Park, downtown’s Guild Theatre sits gutted, with no films projected for more than a decade. When renovations are complete, it’s set to reopen as the second Oregon location of Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya (after the one in Beaverton’s Uwajimaya grocery), with shelves of manga, Studio Ghibli swag, and a planned café.

While the bookstore name translates as a geographic reference to Japan’s old Kii Province, kino means “cinema” or “movie” in so many other languages that the transition seems strangely appropriate. And even without its screen and seats the Guild is a survivor. Plenty of other early movie houses, once practically as ubiquitous as Starbucks locations, have been demolished.

The nearby People’s Theatre is now the people’s lunch stop: the 10th & Alder food cart pod. The Nordstrom block housed the grand Orpheum, with mini-golf in the basement; where Nordstrom Rack sits was once the Oh Joy Theatre. The Vanport Theatre, which operated 24 hours a day to serve wartime shift workers, was destroyed with the rest of its city in 1948’s flood. But other old cinemas were taken down by another powerful force: television.

“People could stay home, kids could watch their favorite shows. That competition kind of leveled off a lot of theaters,” says Gary Lacher, who coauthored Theatres of Portland (part of the Images of America series) with fellow local cinema buff Steve Stone.

Like the Guild, some still-standing former cinemas are fairly obvious, including live performance venues Arlene Schnitzer and the Aladdin, or other large gathering places like New Song Community Church, in the former Egyptian on NE MLK. But you’re also in an old cinema when you’re checking out rims at N Lombard’s Tire Trend (the long-gone Rose Theatre); feasting at Italian stalwart Gino’s (the Star), or shopping a block away at Columbia Sportswear (the Sellwood); dining at Aviary (part of the old Victoria), or trying on dresses catty-corner at Tumbleweed (Pictureland); and standing in line at the NW 23rd Avenue Salt & Straw (once the Nob Hill, then the Esquire).

Mourning all these last picture shows? Channel those emotions with a visit to one of the many operating cinemas that have just hit the century mark or will soon: Avalon (née Sunnyside, opened 1912), Clinton, Cinema 21, Oregon (the Energizer Bunny of porn cinemas!), Laurelhurst, Roseway, Hollywood, Bagdad, and more.

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