BY BRIAN LIBBY
A few years ago, the restoration of the historic Academy Theater helped revitalize the entire Southeast Portland neighborhood of Montavilla. A community anchor in the 1940s and ‘50s, it had closed in the 70s, then served as the Nickel Ads headquarters for a decade-plus only to sat vacant into the new millennium. When the restoration led by interior designer Stephanie Brown finally came, the Academy earned a Preservation in Action Award, it not only brought back moviegoers to this stretch of Stark Street, but restaurants and shops too.
But now the Academy Theater, despite its restored beauty and continuous crowds and its 65th birthday this year, is threatened with closure. The major Hollywood film studios have decided to go 100 percent digital by year's end. Independent theaters such as the Academy must upgrade to digital projectors or go out of business. This phenomenon has even earned a catchphrase: "Go Digital or Go Dark." But digital projectors can cost as much as $60,000, an expense the Academy can’t afford.
The Academy isn’t alone. The National Association of Theater Owners estimates that up to 20 percent of all movie theaters in North America (roughly 10,000 screens) may close as a result of digital conversion. About 750 of those theaters are small historic theaters just like the Academy.
As a result, the Academy has launched a fundraising campaign through the online crowd-sourcing website Indiegogo. Their hope is to raise enough money to go digital (and avoid going dark).
Recently I talked with Stephanie Brown about the Academy and its place in the community.
Portland Architecture: What are some of your favorite design details at the theater?
Brown: Some of the things I loved about the Academy during my very first visit are things I still love today.
For example, I love how truly Streamline Moderne the building is -- from the little porthole "window" details above the marquee, to the beautifully curved wall that dominates the lobby. That wall's fluid curviness imbues the entire space with such elegance. I don't think the lobby would be nearly as pretty or feel nearly as inviting if it was all straight walls and hard angles. I also love the cylindrical "dome." It's not something people expect to see when they first walk through the doors, and it provides a sense of drama I find really appealing.
Given the high cost of seismic and ADA upgrades, I didn't have much of a budget for interior finishes. I really had to get creative with paint and lighting to achieve the look and feel I wanted for the space. So, I would say that the interior color scheme is one of the things I am most proud of. Those colors - the watery blue I used on the walls, the pale gold on the ceilings and the dark red velvet of the curtains (a movie theater isn't a movie theater without red velvet curtains, right?) really made the space come alive.
Speaking of color, from what I understand, when the Academy first opened back in the '40s, it was pink! The current owners weren't interested in being quite THAT historically accurate and asked me to come up with a new color scheme. I poured through images of Moderne buildings from the 1930s and 40s and fell in love Greyhound's many deep blue Moderne bus terminals. The owners loved the idea of deep dark blue, so we went for it, and I'm so glad we did! I think it provides the perfect backdrop for the marquee, especially at night.
We were fortunate to have a collection of historic photos to work from when restoring the building's exterior. We discussed rebuilding the ticket booth but decided against it when we realized it would not meet ADA standards. Knowing it would be unusable made it hard to justify the expense. But one thing we were determined to recreate was the marquee.We got as close as budget and technology would allow, right down to the Tivoli bulbs. I think the marquee really transformed the theater into neighborhood landmark. Before it was installed, even with fresh paint, the theater was just another building on the street. Now, the theater really stands out.
What kind of role do you think the Academy plays in its neighborhood? Would you characterize it as a community anchor?
I'm not sure it's possible for me to stress how important I think the theater is to the Montavilla neighborhood.
I remember my first meeting with the theater's owners. The building was an absolute mess and Southeast Stark wasn't exactly bustling. Many of the storefronts were empty or papered over. I knew the theater itself had potential, but wondered how anyone would ever even know it was there.
I kicked off the restoration with a "Call for Memories" -- basically a request for recollections of the theater in its heyday. The Oregonian, Portland Tribune and a few other media outlets helped spread the word and that triggered a deluge of responses. Not only did former patrons and employees share memories, but the family of the theater’s original owners came forward with historic photos, floor plans and memorabilia. The photos were helpful in figuring out how to proceed with the lobby restoration, but what was even more notable was the emotional connection people maintained to a theater which had been closed for three decades.
We heard from long married couples who'd gone on first dates at the Academy, from (now elderly) women who had worked the ticket booth and candy counter, from people whose childhood memories involved many long afternoons at the theater. Stories kept pouring in, and without fail, people kept commenting that they'd been hoping for years that the theater would reopen.
I think the Call for Memories really helped build anticipation for the reopening. And it inspired such hope and goodwill.Once people knew the renovation was underway, they couldn't wait for the doors to open. This was especially obvious when tickets sold out on opening night. Folks in the neighborhood clearly wanted the theater to succeed.
When the Academy reopened in 2006, Stark Street was home to some great businesses already - Ya Hala, Bipartisan Cafe and Flying Pie come to mind - but the reopening was a catalyst for change. And boy did things change! Drastically and quickly! I think the theater's success made people willing to take a chance on Stark Street again. Soon there was a flood of new businesses - and a new farmers' market - and lots of people willing to support both.
Folks who weren't familiar with Montavilla eight years ago might not appreciate how important the theater has been. One of its biggest contributions was an increase in evening foot traffic.People often don't just go to a movie - they head out for a bite to eat first. And then maybe after the movie they go out for a drink, or possibly for dessert. So really, that's what the theater did for Montavilla -- it gave people a reason to visit a neighborhood they might have forgotten about or maybe didn't even know existed before. And once there, it gave them an opportunity to support other businesses in the district.
People who live within walking distance of the theater would probably visit Stark Street no matter what. But the theater draws lots of people from outside of the neighborhood too. I don't know that Stark Street would be as appealing to them without a theater. And that must be a scary proposition for other businesses on the street. So, yes - I'd say the Academy is definitely an anchor and I think losing that anchor could be devastating to the neighborhood.