Washougal Art & Music Festival

Opinion: When deciding the fate of Keller Auditorium, think of the people who work there

As the deadline for public comment approaches, a stagehand at the 3,000-seat downtown performance hall argues that a vital voice has been largely left out of the conversation.

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Keller Auditorium entry as it appears now, looking up from the fountain. Photo: Brian Libby

EDITOR’S NOTE: The City of Portland, which owns downtown’s 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, is in the midst of an important decision on the future of the aging building, which among other things is susceptible to heavy damage in the event of a severe earthquake.

Three plans have emerged: to build a new replacement performance hall at Portland State University or Lloyd Center, keeping the current auditorium open during construction, or to shut down the Keller for as much as two years for a major renovation, which would also shut out the hall’s many users for that period, with no suitable large alternative space available. See Brian Libby’s report on the three options here.

The city has been seeking public comment on the three options in the form of a survey — you can find the form here — asking for preferences. Time is running short: Survey responses will be accepted through Sunday, July 7.

Below, Keller stagehand Kate Mura argues that the people who actually work at the Keller have been largely left out of the conversation — and that, if the Keller is shut down with no other available space, the livelihoods of the people who keep the building running will be in jeopardy.

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So, what’s going on with the Keller Auditorium??? 

This is a question new for many Oregonians and Portlanders, but it is not a new conversation for the I.A.T.S.E. Local 28 stagehands who work at the Keller, of which I am proudly one for over seventeen years. However, I am writing this as a personal opinion piece.

I know I go to work day in and day out in a seismically unsafe building, and we have brought up these facts over the years to City Hall and Metro, we have asked for safety plans, and have largely received radio silence in return.

So, it’s an amazing flurry of activity now that is ignoring an incredibly important, highly valuable perspective — the stagehands’. Especially, the House Heads who make the Keller Auditorium work for all the diverse user groups. For those not in the industry, the Keller’s Flyman, Head Carpenter, Head of Props, Head Electric, and Head Audio technicians hold the most institutional knowledge and practical applications of what’s needed to help shows load in, load out, and perform easily — what upgrades will be helpful for multiple user groups, and so much more.

They have decades and decades and decades of experience that is being ignored.

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It’s been a fight to get us — and the Broadway in Portland folks, who bring touring Broadway musicals to town — at the table. Which really shouldn’t be the case, as the Keller heads are employees of Metro, which manages the city-owned auditorium. But I live with one of the heads, and he’s yet to be asked to give input on best ways to move forward with the Keller, centering workers’ and user groups’ needs.


I’m glad the city is asking for general feedback in this survey, though I wish they were soliciting information from theater professionals intentionally, too. From my perspective, the open-ended question #10 on the city’s survey is the most important one — where I said very loudly, “Don’t close Keller for even a single night without a replacement Broadway theater,” and implored them to keep the venue open.

I am impacted big-time on two fronts:

First, my home is owned by one of the Keller Heads. If it closes without another Broadway location plan, my housing is in jeopardy.

Second, a bulk of my income — and healthcare — comes from doing wigs and wardrobe for the Broadway tours. Without them, I lose a huge chunk of money and wellness.

Two years without Broadway decimates the unions and hundreds of families. The Metro budget receives a HUGE amount of funds from the Broadway shows. Portland Opera also receives a large share of its budget through Broadway in Portland. And for Oregon Ballet Theatre, packing the Keller for The Nutcracker every December is a big piece of their operating budget, too.

There are dozens of other workers like me who count on union stagehand gigs for a good wage and healthcare, and continue to work at other non I.A.T.S.E. theaters in town that have fewer resources. (I.A.T.S.E. is not a closed union. We are free to work wherever we please, which is actually a great thing on many fronts, including organizing.)

So please, take five minutes and fill out the survey to tell Portland officials why the arts and the Keller Auditorium matter to you.

Then ask your friends to do the same, urging, “Don’t close Keller! Broadway in Portland must always have a good, appropriate home. Just ask a stagehand.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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19 Responses

  1. It seems as if when politicians start planning anything they never turn to the professionals that will be impacted, basing their decisions on what they think they know but not real knowing. Listen to all impacted by your decision. As a person in love with the arts I say keep the Keller open, keep the conversation going, keep Portland vital.

    1. Agreed. And I find his explanations flaccid. All the season ticket owners know that this “historic bldg” had very obviously been renovated multiple times. This is an excuse dreamed up by a builder/developer, and according to the news, this entity has been trying for years to take down this building. So very, very selfish and evil.

  2. Thanks, Kate Mura. I agree. Keeping the Keller open while constructing a new state of the art venue makes the most sense to me, given all the factors to consider. A closure as long as it will need to be to retrofit the Keller will well and truly kill hundreds of jobs, affecting the lives of many hundreds of people and effectively remove PDX from the list of national touring sites, something from which it may never recover. Closing the Keller is a bad move.

    1. Right!! They leave the airport open during renovations, I don’t see why they can’t leave Keller open during it’s renovations.

      1. Sherilyn, the airport is very large and can compensate for areas under construction. Renovating the Keller, which is much smaller, would require shutting the facility down. If you’re reconstructing the stage and seating, you can’t put on a show.

  3. Keep the Keller open! Don’t put theater workers out of work for another two years. Build another venue.

  4. Any closure to the Keller impacts its staff, the local community’s welcoming essence, and its economy. In an era where the arts are increasingly undervalued in education and society, it is crucial for decision-makers to heed the voices of those involved and experts in the field, and to resist the pressures imposed by time and financial constraints.

  5. Keep the Keller while a new facility is built. Otherwise, anyone interested in the arts will have to go to Seattle for Broadway shows, and not everyone can afford to do that.

  6. Just like the airport, I think the Keller needs to be kept open while another venue is being built. I love the space but closing it with no backup will seriously impact not only the employees who work there but also the gap for performing groups/ shows who come here..In Portland’s need to resurrect itself as a tourist destination, it needs to continue having ongoing attractions.
    Therefore. It is paramount to take the entertainment employees as a vital consideration.

    I

  7. Kate, thank you so much for taking the time to write this on behalf of all of us stagehands! I said the same in the survey I filled out. This will do irreparable harm to so many families of folks that work shows out of the Keller. Keep it open while a new facility can be built, for sure!!

  8. Keep the Keller Auditorium open! Support the local arts community with a common sense approach. The artists who perform in the Keller need to earning an income, not being put out of work for two years.

  9. Build another venue on the PSU campus and keep the Keller open until it’s completed. Losing the revenue the shows bring in, losing wages and benefits for the employees, and losing the shows makes it unrealistic to close the Keller to a remodel.

  10. Thank you Sister Mura!!
    OREGON LABOR DEMANDS THAT ANY REPLACEMENT OR RENOVATION PLAN BE DEVELOPED WITH UNIONS AND MUST INCLUDE NO WORK STOPPAGE OR SLOW DOWN OF THE PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE AT THE KELLER, EVEN IF MOVED TO A TEMPORARY HOME THAT IS BIG ENOUGH FOR BROADWAY TOURS.

    UNIONS WORKERS FROM @IATSE28, @SEIU, AND THE OPERATING ENGINEERS HAVE SUFFERED THROUGH THE PANDEMIC AND CANNOT SUSTAIN A SHUTDOWN WITHOUT A REPLACEMENT VENUE!

  11. This is a cultural hub and should not be closed while building a different venue. The city and its people need this space! You don’t just cut off a cultural arm in order to grow a new one… This is a hub of our cultural identity in Portland.

  12. I have season tickets to Keller and want to keep it open until another one built. I would hate to see everyone lose their livelihood.

  13. I’m a fan of unions and generally take the side of workers, but I fear something is being overlooked in all this discussion about the Keller Auditorium. While I see the need to upgrade or rebuild, more people have to speak up in regards to the building’s current location and the importance of its visual/cultural relationship to the magnificent Angela Danadjieva/Lawrence Halprin fountain across the street. Fred Leeson makes the case in his excellent column linked below. Perhaps there is an alternative to keep the Broadway scene flowing while a new or renovated Keller is created at the current site. We can’t afford to lose a treasure of this magnitude.
    Building on History : The Fountain Dictates the Answer
    https://buildingonhistory.blogspot.com/2024/07/the-fountain-dictates-answer.html

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