An Editor's Life in Letters
My first spring in Portland, not yet gainfully employed, I answered an ad calling for volunteers to help scrape the floor of one of the Hollywood Theatre auditoriums, to prep it for repainting. I ended up landing a job there one night a week, and my skill set soon expanded to popping popcorn, dimming lights, running projectors, and handling rowdies (though kicking a drunk and disorderly patron out of a Charles Bukowski movie felt kind of wrong).
New movies started Friday, so during my regular Thursday shift two things would happen: people who had seen the new showtimes in the latest alt-weekly editions would come in for things that weren’t playing yet and be disappointed, and the titles on the marquee would need to be changed. Today the Hollywood, like most other businesses with elevated signs, uses smaller letters that can be placed using an extendable pole with a suction cup at its end. But before its 1920s-replica marquee was installed in 2013, theater workers had to hook translucent red plastic letters to the metal frame by hand, from the top of a rolling ladder.
Most of my time at the Hollywood was pre-iPhone, pre-Facebook, etc. My handiwork might show up in the occasional visiting-filmmaker promo photo, but usually it was gone the next week (or earlier, like that time I misspelled cabaret). Researching former movie houses for part of our “Hidden Portland” cover story, I saw what might have been my work in Theatres of Portland, Gary Lacher and Steve Stone’s extensively researched—but nowhere near exhaustive, the authors say—chronicle of the city’s cinema history. I can’t be sure: Rachel Getting Married and Synecdoche, New York came out right around the time I got too pregnant to sway on the ladder on a windy night, but I spotted my old system at work, starting from the center out, counting letters, noting the difference between the width of, say, an M vs. an I.
Can something I helped create a decade ago already be part of Portland’s vanished history? The Hollywood is still there, of course. So is the tiny Clinton, which dates to 1915 and which Lacher and Stone say offers the moviegoing experience closest to the way things were a century ago, despite the Clinton’s having cycled through silent films, talkies, adult screenings, multiple missions and owners ... it was even a church for a while. (I don’t know if it ever hosted séances during Portland’s era of Ouija mania.) Like so many places we celebrate in this month’s cover story, new and old, it’s not really hidden at all, its secrets simply worth a closer look.