Movie Theaters

How the Clinton Street Theater’s New Owners Are Bringing It into the Future

The 107-year-old Southeast Portland punk palace is getting a light makeover—but its spirit is staying the same as ever.

By Conner Reed July 19, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Fourteen years ago, when Violet Hex was 11 years old, she told her parents she was going to a friend’s house. Instead, in the brisk cold of December, she changed into drag behind a Southeast Portland dumpster and caught The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Clinton Street Theater for the first time. As a “radically, visibly queer, gay punk rock child,” Hex already considered the ’70s cult classic one of her favorite movies, but attending the Clinton’s long-running live show was a lot different than watching it in a friend’s living room.

“I had never in my life been to any movie theater like that. It was the perfect combination of magic and sleaze,” she recalls. “It felt like I was meant to be there but not supposed to be there in a way that’s inimitable.”

One of the oldest continually operating movie theaters on the West Coast, Portland’s single-screen Clinton Street Theater has been chugging along for more than 100 years and showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday since 1978. That tradition is the most famous example of what sets the Clinton apart from the city’s other repertory movie houses: it supplements left-field film screenings with things like live music, drag shows, standup comedy, and DIY performance projects, making it more of a punkish community space and weirdo-haven than, say, Cinema 21. After almost closing during the pandemic, the Clinton was bought in April by a collective of fans and former employees for an undisclosed sum, and while its new operators are committed to not rocking the boat too hard, they hope to double down on the kind of programming that might inspire a million more Violet Hexes.

“The Clinton isn’t just a movie theater. It’s this garage of the community where, if you have an idea and are passionate about something, you can go and show your stuff, or have your friends play, or put on that original musical you heard about,” says Aaron Colter, one of the theater’s new owners. Colter’s connections to the space run deep. He and his partner had their first date across the street at Dots Café. The theater was one of the earliest places he visited when he arrived in Portland 15 years ago; for a while, he lived a few doors down.

In fact, he first made a bid to buy the Clinton with his former Dark Horse Comics colleague Tom Kishel back in 2012, but that fizzled. Colter went to work on other projects—a record label, a tech career—but never lost interest in helming the theater. So when then-owner Lani Jo Leigh sent out an email newsletter in early 2021 alluding to the Clinton’s uncertain future, Colter offered to come aboard as a volunteer film programmer in an effort to keep it afloat.

By then, Violet Hex had been working as the theater’s projectionist for nearly a decade. After that fateful Rocky Horror screening, she became a Clinton lifer, holding a variety of volunteer positions that gave way to full-on employment. She’d staged invite-only midnight screenings of movies like Pink Flamingos and Rock ’n’ Roll High School at the Clinton, started her own drag show there, and seen it through the worst of COVID. It had become one of the most important pieces of her life, and she wasn’t predisposed to uncritically celebrate whoever grabbed the reins next.

Colter, though, proved himself. “Him being a cis man, I get very protective of the space. I think it’s natural to have walls up in that sense,” Hex says. “But he really did the work to show us and our community how invested he was in the success of the Clinton, but also in keeping it a diverse, inclusive space.”

Colter is one of six co-owners, alongside Kishel, musician David Gluck, film programmer Susan Tomorrow, and Morgan McDonald and Steven Williams, who handle budgets. The group runs the theater as a collective, each offering specific expertise and relief to the others (“We always joke that it’s a Voltron situation,” says Colter), while everyone maintains a day job. As of late summer, the collective was able to pay a handful of employees—projectionists, concessionaires—but none of the owners were getting paid.

“The first time we met everyone was Tom and I meeting up at Dots and saying, ‘Hey, this is a really poor idea to lose money, if you’re willing to not only put in money but work for free. Would you like to do this?’ And they said yes,” Colter recalls with a laugh. For the first few months, efforts were trained on raising money for new equipment: a sharper digital projection system, new locks, smoke detectors, some electrical repairs. They prepared to soundproof the lobby it order to keep quiet films quiet and aid a planned increase of live album recordings in the main auditorium.

Now, it’s a matter of doubling down on what works without snuffing out any of the venue’s inherent magic. Violet Hex is the coproducer of a new, maximal resident drag show called Galore; a queer and POC variety show called Mélange has recently taken root; Drag Race winner and Portland native Jinkx Monsoon hosted a show at the theater in late spring. For the fall, the group has prepared an onslaught of horror programming, including the Nic Cage metal freakout Mandy, a variety of festivals, and some older classics on 16 mm film.

“More stage events. More music. More performance,” says Colter of his cohort’s future plans. “We joke about being the anarchist clubhouse of Portland—we’ve raised money for abortion funds and prison abolitionist groups, so we’re still gonna be a more radical space than I think a lot of other spaces in town are willing to be.”

And yes, Rocky Horror and the Power of Women film fest and a million other Clinton staples will go on, because the more things change, the more they stay—in this case, thankfully—the same.

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