Portland’s arthouse movie theaters haven’t given up

In a mutating media landscape,the Hollywood, NW Film Center and Clinton St. Theater are learning to adapt

When Lani Jo Leigh bought the Clinton Street Theater in 2012, she considered ending the theater’s decades-long run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie that is far from her personal cinematic tastes. (“I like foreign films that are all very intellectual and nothing really happens and people just sort of talk,” she says.)

Then Leigh realized that Rocky Horror wasn’t just a cult craze. It was also a haven for Portland’s LGBTQ community.

“I started meeting all these people—these amazing people—and heard them tell me, ‘Rocky Horror saved my life. I used to cut myself or I used to harm myself in this way. I had thoughts of suicide because I didn’t fit in. But I came here and I was fine, I was safe, I could be me,’” Leigh says. “I understood that it was a gift that the theater was giving to the LGBTQ community.”

The Clinton St. Theater has a long history of resistance.
These days, it’s also fighting for its own survival.

But that was another life. The Clinton Street Theater is just one of many Portland arthouse movie theaters faced with a choice: evolve or die. As COVID-19 continues to rage throughout Oregon, theaters have been forced to abandon traditions like Rocky Horror in favor of streaming films or (if they have the space) hosting drive-in screenings.

As I began speaking to stalwarts of Portland’s arthouse cinema scene for this article, I braced for bad news. I was heartened to hear less of it then I expected. “It’s amazing—we’ve all still been really busy, even though the theater’s closed,” says Dan Halsted, the head programmer at the Hollywood Theater. “So I think that’s helped with keeping morale up. It’s not just doom and gloom.”

But not every theater is the Hollywood. Here’s what I learned about the state of some of the city’s most beloved arthouse theaters—what they have become and what they’re doing to survive long enough to see a post-COVID Portland.

Return of the drive-in.

Amy Dotson was sitting on the back of her grandfather’s 1970s blue Ford pickup truck when the tornado struck. It was 1996 and she was seeing Twister at the Cinema 69 Drive-In in Oklahoma. The arrival of an actual twister cut the screening short, but it didn’t diminish her enthusiasm for drive-in theaters—as the director of the NW Film Center, she’s overseeing the Drive-In at Zidell Yards (which is a collaboration between the Film Center and the Portland Art Museum and will be open on and off through September 27).

“We’ve sold about 800 tickets to date,” Dotson says. “We hope that that’s a good sign and people will continue to come out and enjoy some popcorn and a night under the stars.”

Drive-in theaters are often associated with blockbusters like Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg’s devilish dinos topped the box office once again in June), but the Film Center is offering edgier options as part of its Cinema Unbound series. Obvious summer fare like E.T. and Fast Times at Ridgemont High will be shown, but so will Sofia Coppola’s transcendent Tokyo odyssey Lost in Translation (two of the series’ finest offerings, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, have already sold out).

“Our litmus test was people who refuse to let their creativity be bound by convention…from people like the late Lynn Shelton to Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Dotson says (the theater is showing Sword of Trust, the final film directed by Shelton, a brilliant mumblecore auteur who died in May).

Drive-In at Zidell Yards gets beyond traditional drive-in movie fare.

After facing controversy over a planned opening screening of Kindergarten Cop (it was replaced by the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which has sold out), the Drive-In at Zidell Yards opens tonight—and will be observing strict social distancing protocols. Popcorn will be served to the hoods of cars and moviegoers will hear the film using a limited FM radio frequency.

“Everything is not foolproof,” Dotson says. “So we just want to make sure whether it’s the Drive-In or whether it’s other things that we’re doing that it’s safety first and then backing up from there.”

The evolution will be digitized.

If film fandom is a polytheistic religion, physical media is one of its gods. I should know—I’m one of the cine-snobs who insisted on seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix film, on the big screen in 2018. This may sound like deluded romanticism to nonbelievers, but I’ve never liked the intangibility of streaming services. A movie isn’t fully real to me until I hold either a ticket, a DVD or a Blu-Ray in my hand.

That attitude is one of the pandemic’s more trivial casualties. “I’ve been a projectionist and film programmer my entire life, so all of this has been such a huge change in gears,” Dan Halsted says. “All of a sudden, I’m thrust into streaming and everything online, and the tech side is really complicated and I’m trying to figure all that out. It’s very bizarre.”

Thanks to its inventive virtual programming, the Hollywood has become a model for pandemic-era cinematic success. By offering moviegoers online classes and original films, the theater has given its fans a reason to watch (and will have drive-in screenings of its own, which will take place at the Expo Center beginning August 13).

After closing in March, the Hollywood announced an April 18 reopening date, which executive director Doug Whyte swiftly realized was a mistake. “We put it on our marquee I think the first night, and I think already by the second day we were like, ‘Let’s get that day off the marquee,’” he says. Eventually, the theater did reopen, but only for rental screenings (Whyte says that they have been popular, but that no customer has paid the $900-$1,200 necessary for a live pipe-organ score).

The Hollywood’s classes (which are offered through its Movie Madness University program) have spotlighted everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria—and they actually expanded during the pandemic. “We were about to launch those education classes before the pandemic, and they could have had 16 people per class,” Whyte says. “Now we’re doing them online and we’ve had like 100-plus people per class.”

Gremlins: A Puppet Story, available on the theater’s website,
is an example of Hollywood Theatre’sprogramming creativity.

Other Hollywood Theatre triumphs include Gremlins: A Puppet Story (a new behind-the-scenes documentary about Joe Dante’s 1984 horror classic Gremlins), which features rare photos and videos from special-effects master Chris Walas’ personal archive. Available on the theater’s website, it’s the kind of offering that is emblematic of the institution’s impressive reinvention.

“We are in a lucky position,” Whyte says. “We’re a nonprofit organization, we have a big base of members and donors, we own our building outright, we don’t have any debts on it and we have a pretty healthy reserve.”

Not every theater has been so fortunate.

Twilight for the Clinton?

Founded in 1915, the Clinton Street Theater has endured its share of crises. “The theater’s been there for the community since it opened and it’s never stopped operating,” says Lani Jo Leigh. “Through the Spanish flu, and through World War I and World War II, it’s survived.”

Can the Clinton survive Covid-19, too? Leigh isn’t sure, but she’s fighting for the theater. She’s offering Clinton lovers films and videos to stream, popcorn to go (on Fridays and Saturdays) and theater merchandise (including facemasks and Unfit, her memoir about being forced to give up her son Bo when she was a teenager).

Leigh also needs $4,000 a month to pay the theater’s bills—and its miniscule lobby means it won’t be able to reopen until social distancing is no longer necessary. “Everywhere you look, there’s a problem,” Leigh says. “If I went down to 25 percent capacity, I could have people arranged in the auditorium itself, but it’s just getting there and getting out or getting concessions or getting to a bathroom that’s impossible.”

In other words, the Clinton is a reminder that when it comes to arthouse cinema, the NW Film Center and the Hollywood are arguably the exception, not the rule.

“It’s important to remember that these businesses are now hurt through no fault of their own,” says Phil Contrino, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners. “They were robust businesses, especially independent theaters, which are an essential part of the communities they’re in—a gathering place. They can be that again.”

How? Contrino points to the RESTART Act—which, if passed by Congress, could give movie theaters access to partially forgivable seven-year loans covering six months of expenses (NATO is promoting it using the #SaveYourCinema campaign). But people may have to act soon if they want to save theaters like the Clinton.

“I know I can’t open safely until there’s a vaccine or there’s a treatment,” Leigh says. “I kind of vacillate between being super, super sad because I’m losing something I’ve built up over eight years…and being angry at the messed-up way we are in our country and how we’ve had not little, but no leadership on this.”

Clinging to cinema.

Phil Contrino is a seasoned movie buff (the last film he saw in a theater was the Oscar-nominated obscurity Corpus Cristi)—and he was one of the most chipper people I spoke to for this article (“Independent theatres are so resourceful,” he declared). His optimism isn’t surprising—he has a personal stake in the survival of theaters.

I do, too. In 2012, I worked at the Joy Cinema and Pub (which is owned by my lifelong friend, Jeff Martin), a gig that paved the way for me to work part-time at Cinema 21—an experience that taught me that a movie theater isn’t just a place to watch movies. It can also be an arena of conversation and connection.

Which is why, even though I miss my job, I miss my colleagues more. I miss the fanboy frenzies that I share with Erik when we geek out about Christopher Nolan. I miss Riley’s mouthwatering rhapsodies about the ice cream at Mike’s Drive-In. I miss having zany political debates with Ward. I miss Agnieszka’s toughness, kindness and peerless sense of style (I’m biased because like me, she’s into berets).

There are times when I wonder if I should stop torturing myself with those memories, but clinging to them has become an act of defiance, and defiance feels right. I know that and I think Leigh knows it—she hasn’t fully closed the curtains on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My manager—I’m not paying him, he’s doing it voluntarily—every week, he still goes over and he runs that print and he plays Rocky Horror,” she told me.

You can call that a symbolic gesture, and it is. It’s a symbol of the ideals that are sustaining arthouse cinemas: resilience and hope.

Cat videos to the rescue

Can a collection of cat videos help save independent movie houses from the economic ravages of the pandemic?

Do cats know that there is a pandemic? Cat lover, filmmaker and movie theatre owner Brian Mendelssohn isn’t sure, but he is struck by the feline capacity for empathy.

“My wife is pregnant now and our cat Oliver has literally been sleeping on her every night, protecting her and the kid,” Mendelssohn says. “So they definitely sense what we’re feeling and what we’re doing.”

Mendelssohn’s fascination with cats is felt in every frame of the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, an 84-minute movie he directed that features cat videos from across America. The film is filled with feasting, lounging and adventuring cats—and it’s raising money for independent theatres affected by the pandemic (including several in Oregon). “‘Funny’ and ‘cute’—those things that we need during a pandemic,” Mendelssohn says. “We just needed a boost right now.”


Under ‘Suspiria’s’ spell

A new online course from Movie Madness University, led by Anthony Hudson, probes a horror remake.

A new online course from Movie Madness University probes a horror remake.

In a sickening scene from director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the Dario Argento horror classic Suspiria, a dancer is literally torn apart. Her gruesome final moments—punctuated by contorted flesh and cracking bones—were notorious even before the film was released.

Yet after seeing Suspiria with friends on Halloween in 2018, film programmer Anthony Hudson was both shocked and entranced. “Honestly, we were all silent and in a state of rapture,” says Hudson, also known as the drag clown Carla Rossi. “I think the first thing I said after seeing it was, ‘I can’t believe that was a great horror movie and it summed up all of my politics.’”

Hudson will share the rapture this Thursday in an online Suspiria course (offered by Movie Madness University, the Hollywood Theatre’s film education program) that spotlights the movie’s progressive politics, queer love stories and moral ambiguities. “It’s not easily read as black and white,” Hudson says of Suspiria. “Even the protagonist, this goddess, is still a primordial witch deity who has to sacrifice people for her magic, and I think that just speaks to the complications of the world we live in.”

Anthony Hudson will teach an online course on the remake of Suspiria through Movie Madness University and the Hollywood Theatre

Set in 1977 (the year that the original film was released), Suspiria stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, the American star of a West Berlin dance company that is also a coven of witches. The film is filled with supernatural shenanigans, which are juxtaposed with the German Autumn, when the Red Army Faction was involved in a series of kidnappings and other violent incidents. 


Yamhill County galleries begin to reopen, cautiously

Limited hours and requests to wear masks are common as galleries start welcoming back visitors

Yamhill County is beginning to emerge from its COVID-19 quarantine, which in mid-March shut down virtually everything, laying waste to a broad swath of cultural and artistic work. Gallery Theater’s production of Proof was literally days from opening, until it wasn’t. The Terroir Creative Writing Festival, traditionally held in April, was put on hold, as was the Aquilon Music Festival.

It’s too early to speculate on what the rest of the year holds. Gallery’s board meets later this month to chart a course for the remainder of the 2020 season. Linfield College, traditionally a fount of recitals and concerts, plays, readings, lectures, and visual art shows, is quiet for the moment but has made it clear it will welcome students back into brick-and-mortar classrooms this fall.

Debby Denno’s work, such as "Fascinatin’ Rhythm," (colored pencil drawing, 8.25 by 11.75 inches), is featured this month at Currents Gallery in McMinnville.
Debby Denno’s work, such as “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (colored pencil drawing, 8.25 by 11.75 inches), is featured this month at Currents Gallery in McMinnville.

There is good news. The art gallery scene is coming to life. I reached out to about 10 galleries last week and heard back from most. The governing principle for all is, basically, assume they’re continuing to do business online, and assume fewer hours for on-premises visits. And while not everyone requires it, I hope it’s not too political to suggest that you wear a mask. Prior to reopening, Yamhill County was reporting from zero to three new COVID-19 cases daily for about two weeks, including five days of no new cases. Late last week, we had nine new cases in two days, and over the weekend, nearly a dozen. This thing is not over yet.

At Currents Gallery in downtown McMinnville, they’re very aware of that. All seven owners are, by virtue of age, in the “vulnerable” category with regard to COVID-19, Marlene Eichner told me. So for the three days a week they’re open (Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays), they require visitors to wear a mask — either their own, or one provided by the gallery.

“We’re anxious to interact again with the art-appreciating public, to have engaging conversations about art mediums and techniques, and life in general,” Eichner said. “And maybe even have them walk away with a satisfying purchase. But above all, we want to support all community efforts to ensure a safe environment for everyone.”


Things begin to stir at the Coast

In Newport, films will be shown outdoors and symphony members play online, while the Lincoln City Cultural Center has reopened to the public

The Newport Performing Arts Center remains dark, but that doesn’t mean nothing is going on.

Friday, June 5, marks the start of the PAC Picture Show. Due to licensing restrictions that I don’t quite understand, the Performing Arts Center cannot reveal what the coming films are, beyond describing them as nostalgic, but you can find the titles by going to the website.

The films will be shown outdoors in socially distanced “Parking Lot Theatre style” at the Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday nights. The sound is broadcast via FM radio, so you’ll need a working FM radio if you want to hear the film. A $15 donation is requested for admission, which guarantees a parking spot. Space for SUVs, trucks, vans, and minivans is very limited, organizers say, so best if you can drive a smaller vehicle.

The picture show is sponsored by the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, which is also sponsoring the ongoing online art show at the Visual Arts Center.  


Welcome to the Goon Docks, virtually

Astoria dials back the 35th-anniversary celebration of the cult classic because of COVID-19 restrictions, but fans will still find ways to fete the film

In June 1985, as Mikey Walsh and his young friends set out from their coastal Goon Docks neighborhood in Astoria in search of hidden treasure, I was living on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and knew nothing about his adventure. Of course, we had movie theaters there, but if The Goonies made the local big screen, I didn’t know about it.

In truth, it would be 20 years before I heard of the movie. That was 2005, the year of the first Goonies Day, hosted by the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. For those who don’t know the story, Mikey’s family is about to lose their home to the expansion of the neighboring country club. Then Mikey stumbles on a treasure map and, with his friends, sets out to find the pirate’s treasure and save their neighborhood. First, however, they must elude an evil family whose restaurant sits above the entrance to the cavern where they believe the treasure is buried.

Corey Feldman (from left), Sean Astin,, Ke Huy Quan, and Jeff Cohen starred as the pirate-treasure-hunting heroes of “The Goonies,” filmed largely in Astoria and along the Oregon Coast.
Corey Feldman (from left), Sean Astin,, Ke Huy Quan, and Jeff Cohen starred as the pirate-treasure-hunting heroes of “The Goonies,” filmed largely in Astoria and along the Oregon Coast.

It’s a fun story by Steven Spielberg that takes many viewers back to their own childhoods. But it’s more than just a family-friendly flick; its devoted fans have elevated The Goonies to a worldwide cult classic.

Astoria annually celebrates June 7 as Goonies Day, with blowouts every five years since 2005, and, since 2011, smaller events during the years in between.

“It touches people from all over the world,” said Regina Willkie, marketing manager for the chamber. “Visitors come from all over: Australia, Spain, Italy, Japan, Brazil, and all over the U.S. The fans are always so excited. They seem to adopt Astoria as a second home.”

This summer was to be the 35th anniversary celebration. And it still will be – in the virtual world.


‘I am still here.… It still is a time for singing’

Voices from the front: Five members of the coastal arts community talk about how the pandemic has changed them – and it’s not all bad news

I can’t think of another time in my life more unexpected or unpredictable. When will it end? Who will I be when it’s over? Certainly not the same, of that I’m sure. But the pandemic has not been without bright spots. Nearly every day I see evidence of something good. A rekindled relationship; an inspired new business; new friendships formed at virtual gatherings.

Thinking others must be experiencing the same, I reached out to members of the coastal arts world and asked three questions: What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic? What have you learned? Will your work be different as a result?  Here are their answers, edited for length and clarity.


Betsy Altomare is co-owner with her husband, Keith, of the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City. The theater is closed but offering virtual films through its website. And every day from 6 to 7 p.m., the Altomares sell their popular popcorn to go.

Betsy Altomare is co-owner of Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City.
Betsy Altomare says she has been surprised at the outpouring of love for the Bijou Theatre.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Altomare: Probably the reminder that people really love the Bijou Theatre. We decided to do a GoFundMe with the goal to pay off our mortgage, which was only $2,984. We actually raised it in 10 hours.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Altomare:  Patience, and that viruses don’t discriminate.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Altomare: That’s the big one. Very different. We’ve been doing virtual cinema. That’s been fairly popular. Right now, we have nine movies on our website and they are things we would normally play. I think we’re going to continue doing a few titles even once we open our doors. Also, the popcorn.  

Alison Dennis has been the executive director at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology since October 2018. The nonprofit was fortunate to receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program that has allowed Sitka to keep its full staff working full hours.

“We’re working remotely from home, both making preparations for the summer, adapting as we learn what will be possible, and also hard at work planning the 2021 schedule now,” Dennis said. “Even before the pandemic, Sitka had been pursuing a number of innovative ways to expand our reach, and we’re excited to share more about what we’ve been working on in the months ahead.”

Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
The Sitka Center’s Alison Dennis says she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Dennis: The generosity of the Oregon arts community is awe-inspiring. Whether generosity in spirits (well wishes) or financial support (donated money for spring workshops we’ve had to cancel). Instead of requesting full refunds, people are donating part or all of it. We’re really overwhelmed. One of our newest team members put it this way: “The people are reaching out to us to make sure the Sitka team is doing OK. I’ve never worked anywhere where people care so much.”

I was really moved by that reflection. One of the other biggest surprises is feeling isolated, but also more connected than ever at the same time.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Dennis: On a practical level, the Oregon Coast is an art and nature destination. It’s important for all of us who are part of coastal tourism and government to collaborate across county lines to determine when and how we welcome people back to the coast. On an art and ecology level, now is the time to listen to nature. Altea Narici, a cellist and vocal artist from Rome, participated in a residence here. Reflecting on her time here the first week of the pandemic, she wrote, “The world is saying I am still here, life is still here, spring is happening now. It still is a time for singing.”

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Dennis: I bet it will. At one level, Sitka is very much a place-based organization. We’re a place people come to get off the grid, connect with nature, reflect, and create. At another level, Sitka’s real work is the inspiration people take with them into their lives after spending time in this place. The pandemic is bringing communities together across geography in new ways. I’m excited to see how Sitka’s community of art- and nature-inspired people will connect, share, find inspiration in one another’s work through the pandemic, but also beyond.