History of the Clinton Street Theater – Portland Oregon
The Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Oregon has been home to a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast since 1978. But it’s history and unique place in Cinema Theater goes further back then that, making it the oldest continually operating theater west of the Mississippi.
Built at 808 1/2 Clinton Street in 1914, “The Clinton” was a Craftsman style theater that opened in 1915. Ed Soderstrom was manager of the brand new theater.
“Trouble” and general mischievousness started early at the Clinton. On February 1st, 1917 two boys, Charles Cain and Irvin Campbell were arrested for firing “torpedoes” during a dramatic Pistol Duel on screen at the theater. The realism of the boy’s toys made the crowd jump and several women scream. Keep in mind that this was the era of the “Silent Movie,” and such noises during the scene were unexpected to say the least.
The boys were forced to make public apologies at the theater two nights in a row, and Mr. Soderstom promised to widely advertise the event.
On November 9th 1919, the Morning Oregonian reports that E. J. Potter and T. L. Monteith had just recently returned from military service and were taking over operation of the theater after Mr. Soderstom had left Portland. The theater had been closed for a couple of months at that point. But this marked a turning in the Clinton’s history. Instead of playing just “big features” (known as Full Feature Films today) they would also be playing “serials,” which are more like modern TV shows. A new episode came out every week and audiences would line up to catch their favorite series.
Like all businesses, the Clinton had to keep up with the times and competitors. In November 1919, E.J. Potter gave away free turkeys (no word if they were alive or already butchered,) during Thanksgiving week. He also held free shows for kids and discovered that there were more grown-ups in the audience when the shows were free.
The Great Radium Mystery also opened at the Clinton that Friday to great success.
A few years later, The Clinton participates in the Paramount Week Celebration, during the second week of September 1925.
Just over a year later on November 26th, 1926, minor tragedy strikes as the cashier, Mrs. Pearl Potter is held at gun point and robbed of $90 while counting receipts at the theater.
Despite the best efforts of four Portland Police Inspectors, the culprit is never found.
October 9th, 1927, Always on the forefront of bringing the newest in entertainment to the masses, the Clinton Theater enters the world of Vaudeville. Just call Mabel up and have her patch you into the theater now at SE 1178 after Portland’s streets are renumbered if you’re interested.
Only a month later, and proving that everything goes in circles once again, students of a Mrs. Fred L. Olson, put on shows at the Clinton in late November 1927. No word on how rowdy the show got or if anyone threw anything though.
No word on who De Pinto was, but “his” theater was playing “Messalina,” one of the greatest European Films shown, even in New York, on February 5th, 1928.
De Pinto continued to advertise other films through out the rest of the month, including “The Better ‘Ole,” “Monte Cristo,” staring John Gilbert, John Barrymore’s (Drew Barrymore’s grandfather,) “Don Juan,” Victor Hugo’s master piece “Les Miserables,” and the somewhat racist, “The Chinese Parrot.” One must wonder if these masterpieces still lay forgotten in the theater or if they have been destroyed.
Italian Tenor, Signore Emilio Staine was engaged to provide a prologue to Monte Cristo. Unfortunately Staine seems to have faded into obscurity soon afterwards.
April 17th, 1928, we read the exciting news that a bomb is found at the Clinton Theater! Luckily it was a false alarm. The “bomb” turned out to be a box installed by the P. E. P. Company (fore runner of Portland General Electric.)
During the “Great Renumbering” of September 2, 1931, where all streets in Portland were renumbered to allow more houses per a block (increased from twenty to one hundred,) the Clinton Street Theater officially “moves” to it’s present address of 2522 SE Clinton Street, Portland, OR. The old address continues to be used for many more years though.
For some reason the pay phones at the Clinton Theater are disconnected in Feburary of 1933. The matter goes to court for $6000 in damages, and $1000 in attorney fees.I have to wonder what the story was with this, and who paid whom.
By Christmas 1940, a Hugh F. McKee seems to be manager of the Clinton. He later reports a theft of $23 from the box office on March 23, 1943.
Tragedy hits the Theater again, this time a fire in one of the upstairs apartments. The September 22nd, 1941 Oregonian reports that the fire was caused by a back fire from an oil burner in the building’s central heating plant. Damages to the theater amount to $750.
By 1943, the Theater has been renamed to the 26th Avenue Theatre. Although it continues to be known as the Clinton though for several more years in various publications.
The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Hurner who live only a few blocks away also manage the 26th Avenue Theater.
Unfortunately, another fire causes $9500 worth of damage to the building, including smoke damage to the 26th Avenue Theater.
January 7th, 1954 sees the Theater till robbed again (referred to as the Clinton.) This time of $35. The boy, who already has a record, turns himself in an hour later directly to the new manager Glen Himmel.Start of another tradition at the Clinton.
The theater reopened on February 2nd, 1969 as the Encore, joining five other theaters in Portland as a location for art and foreign films. Tthere are no advertisements of any movies playing at the theater between late 1969 and early 1975, meaning during this time it was running porn movies.The Clinton Neighborhood wasn’t the best of areas during these days.
By November 26th, 1975, the theater had reopened as the Clinton Street Theater again. A group of six, aged 23-30 were continuing the tradition of the theater’s art house days, and also as a dollar theater.
By 1977 the theater was playing host to bands such as the Multnomah Rhythm Ensemble, photos and poetry about Guatemala by Zoe Best, and played movies benefits for various charities.
In April 1978, the first Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast played at the Clinton, and it’s been down hill since then. The show had already been playing for quite some time at the Clinton, but the exact date is unknown at this time. Keep in mind that Rocky Horror first opened in theaters August 14, 1975.
Interesting enough, in 1979, Rocky Horror Picture Show was already keeping the theater alive as the primary source of revenue.
During the next several decades, the Clinton Street Theater continued to put on benefits, Poetry readings, concerts, Photography exhibits, concerts, documentaries, and rare and unusual films.
And of course, the weirdness that is Rocky Horror Picture Show as this article from October 5, 1987 shows.
From 1999 to 2002, Film Archivist, Dennis Nyback owned the Clinton Street Theater. Many interesting movies were shown during Mr. Nyback’s time and the theater resurged in popularity with Rocky Horror Picture show again at the fore front.
The theater is now owned by Seth and Nicola Sonstein who purchased it in the Fall of 2003.
Over the years the Clinton Street Theater has played host to celebrities such as Chuck Pahlhinuk, Tom Potter, John Waters, Lloyd Kaufman (owner of Troma Entertainment,) and Gus Van Sant among many others. It continues to be a vibrant part of the neighborhood and hopefully will remain so for the future.