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Oregon Film Museum in Astoria plans massive expansion following $1 million state grant

A new, 13,000-square-foot building will celebrate Oregon's cinematic legacy, leaving the current site to focus on 'The Goonies.' The city will mark the 39th anniversary of the film's release with Goonies Day on June 7.

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An artist’s rendering by Skylab Architecture shows what the Oregon Film Museum will look like after a $10 million expansion at Seventh and Duane streets in Astoria.

Friday, June 7, will be celebrated in Astoria, as it is every year, as Goonies Day. This year marks the 39th anniversary of the 1985 film, shot in Astoria and nearby areas, that has become a cult classic and inspired folks from all 50 states and 45 countries to visit the Goonies-themed Oregon Film Museum, housed in the town’s old jail, which was used in the film.

This year’s festivities may well have an extra frisson with the March news that the Clatsop County Historical Society, which operates the museum, had been awarded a $1 million grant from the Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon as part of its 2024 round of funding. The money will go toward a $10 million expansion of the museum, including the construction of a new building that will dwarf the current facility.

That would be the quaint but crowded edifice that served as Astoria’s working jail from 1914 to 1976, according to Historical Society’s executive director, Mac Burns. After the city erected a larger jail behind the building, the original was used for evidence storage and office space. When Hollywood came to town and needed a jail scene, it was used, not only in The Goonies but also Come See the Paradise, an episode from the first season of 21 Jump Street, (maybe) Short Circuit and (reportedly) an episode of Quantum Leap. (“I’m not prepared to watch all eight seasons just to try to find it,” Burns said.)


OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series


The Oregon Film Museum, 732 Duane St., is housed in the building that served as Astoria’s jail from 1914 to 1976. Photo by: Marc Mohan

Those supporting roles were merely a prelude to the jail’s star turn as the home of the Oregon Film Museum. When Astoria celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Goonies in 2005, the Clatsop County Heritage Museum hosted an exhibit. “It was the busiest weekend, month, and summer that museum has ever had,” said Burns. That success prompted the first discussions about using the jail to house a permanent collection of material related to the fondly remembered movie, and the film museum opened in time for the 25th anniversary celebrations five years later. The Clatsop County Historical Society leases the building from the county for one dollar a year.

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

Attendance has grown every year, and, Burns said, “we have outgrown an 800-square-foot facility.” In the summer, lines form in the parking lot outside the museum as only around 20 visitors are allowed inside at once, a restriction that began during COVID and remains. “Nobody likes jail overcrowding,” Burns said.

Even though it was the ninth-highest grossing film released in 1985, there’s never been a sequel to The Goonies. In the Steven Spielberg-produced family comedy, a group of kids trying to save their homes from foreclosure stumble upon a map that purports to lead to the fabled pirate treasure of One-Eyed Willy. The cast included notable young actors such as Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, and Martha Plimpton. Its enduring appeal, which includes being added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2017, mirrors the movie’s best-known quote, uttered by co-star (and recent Oscar winner) Ke Huy Quan: “Goonies never say die!” “When we were opening this, my board asked me whether this [fascination with The Goonies] was going to die at some point,” said Burns. “But we see 20-year-olds show up, people younger than the movie, who were introduced to it by their parents, and we see 70-year-olds show up who remember renting it constantly for their kids.”

Your correspondent went peacefully when booked. Photo courtesy: Marc Mohan

The current museum contains the memorabilia that composed the original Heritage Museum exhibit, plus a whole lot more, much of it displayed in the building’s actual jail cells. Your correspondent relented to having his mugshot taken in the museum’s lobby, a portion of which is decorated with notes, some quite touching, left by Goonies fans testifying to the film’s importance in their lives. Relics from other Astoria-based productions (including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Come See the Paradise, and others) soon made their way into the collection, including one of Burns’ favorite attractions, a series of videos in which local grade-schoolers visited the set of the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop.

The film museum contains costume props from “The Goonies.”

“Right after we opened, a retired schoolteacher came in,” he recalled. “She had taught at the school where the film was shot, and part of the deal was that the kids would get to interview on video every member of the cast and crew. She handed us this stack of tapes, all in ‘extended play,’ which came to about 12 hours of footage.” Portions of the interviews, including an adorable exchange with the future Governator himself, play on a loop in the museum’s hallway. The plan is eventually to digitize the entire array and give visitors the ability to browse their way through by selection of particular cast and crew members via touchscreen.

User-friendly technology is at the heart of the other major portion of the museum. Visitors have access to several small film sets: the backseat of a car, a room with a table, and so on. Each is equipped with cameras and interfaces designed to educate users on cinema basics, such as green screen, the 180-degree rule (spacial relationship between characters in a scene), and more. (There’s even a door with a head-sized hole allowing one to do one’s best Jack Torrance impression in honor of another Oregon-shot classic, The Shining.) It’s an immersive and fun way for the historical society to fulfill its educational mission, and for amateurs to get a taste of the movie-making know-how. “We want to teach people that there are a lot of ways into this industry,” Burns said. “They hire carpenters, hairdressers, seamsters, and seamstresses.”

A video monitor shows footage taken during the making of "Kindergarten Cop." Photo by: Marc Mohan
A video monitor shows footage taken during the making of “Kindergarten Cop.” Photo by: Marc Mohan

That’s a lot to fit into a structure this small, which explains why the historical society has been so eager to expand into a second, larger space. The old jail will be devoted entirely to The Goonies, and the new building will serve as an education center and tribute to the rest of the state’s filmic legacy.

The organization quietly acquired the new property, located catty-corner from the current museum at the intersection of Seventh and Duane streets in Astoria, several years ago. The building’s previous uses have included a print shop and a bakery, and it’s been gutted once previously by a fire. The lack of historical status means that there are no restrictions on bulldozing it and building a two-story, 13,000-square-foot facility. The end result will be a campus of sorts incorporating the film museums and the historic Flavel House Museum, located one block over.

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

If you explore the Oregon Film Museum, you might find One-Eyed Willy’s treasure. Photo by: Marc Mohan

The new building is anticipated to include flexible education space to be used for classes taught by visiting artists and artisans. These residencies would allow students and the general public to sample the experience of crafts such as costume design. Burns doesn’t anticipate recruiting professionals: “If you were in the industry, wouldn’t you love a paid gig in Astoria for a week?” His vision is to create, among other things, a sort of miniature movie studio where kids (and kids-at-heart) can learn the basics of animation, editing, and other foundational aspects of film-making.

This building at Seventh and Duane streets will give way to the Oregon Film Museum expansion. Photo by: Marc Mohan

Other planned amenities include a 50-seat screening room, a much larger gift shop, and an expanded exhibit space to explore the state’s cinematic legacy, which includes more than 500 major motion pictures, from Buster Keaton’s The General through Night Always Comes, the adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel that recently began filming in the Portland area. Other notable efforts include James Stewart in Bend of the River, Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, Paul Newman in Sometimes a Great Notion, and NBC’s hit series Grimm.

The museum should have the space to show off Oregon’s lengthy and continuing utility for filmmakers of all shapes and sizes. Astoria itself recently hosted Daisy Ridley of Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens when she shot the indie Sometimes I Think About Dying. “There is a rich history of storytelling in the state, there continues to be, and there’s also a rich industry of film-making and television,” Burns said.

The screening room will be used for a variety of purposes, potentially including an orientation film, educational screenings, and showings of new Oregon-made movies. The design, courtesy of Skylab Architecture of Portland, includes a skylight intended to resemble a camera aperture when viewed from above or below. The second story will receive the hot sets from the existing facility and a couple more, including an editing suite and a Foley sound-recording station.

The “Hot Set” allows visitors to explore green screen technology. Photo by: Marc Mohan

It may seem unlikely that Astoria, with a population barely exceeding 10,000, would be the home of a museum dedicated to the entire state’s film history. After all, Portland has been home to famous filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, and the making of National Lampoon’s Animal House in Eugene spawned enough anecdotes to fill a library. But, as Burns explained, the city holds preeminent place as the site of the first narrative movie ever shot in Oregon, 1909’s The Fisherman’s Bride. That film was produced by the Selig Polyscope Company, owned by William Selig, which was responsible for hundreds of other early silents and, most notably, built the first permanent movie studio in Southern California. Basically, the company invented Hollywood. “I love this story,” said Burns. “It’s kind of my white whale. I just think Colonel Selig is someone we should all know about. Nobody remembers the guy, and he’s really important.” In other words, you can count on The Fisherman’s Bride and Selig being represented in the expanded museum in some capacity or other.

In addition, while the Astoria area may not have the most movies filmed in Oregon, it has a good share of the most significant ones. And, Burns noted, “We have a really good relationship with filmmakers. We will do anything to be on film. You want us to close the main street? We’ll do it! You want an antique car? Twenty will show up. You want extras? Five hundred people will turn out.”

Film tourism in general is a growing industry, as evidenced by the success of the Oregon Film Trail project. “I want people to come here first,” said Burns, “but this pie is really big.” He cites Brownsville in the Willamette Valley, which holds a Stand By Me festival every year that draws thousands, as an example of how smaller communities can exploit their Hollywood connection. “Every Chamber of Commerce ought to be trying to figure what was filmed in their town, because there’s somebody out there who wants to see that spot.”

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

With Astoria’s role as a stop for oceangoing cruise ships as well as Columbia River cruises, the evergreen nostalgia for The Goonies, and the continuing tourist appeal of the Oregon Coast, the Oregon Film Museum has had a remarkably rapid recovery from COVID shutdowns, with attendance figures for 2022 exceeding those of 2019, and last year reaching another new high. Although it’s unrealistic to expect that the new construction will be completed in time for next year’s 40th anniversary Goonies Day, the final product sounds like it should be worth the wait, with an expected completion before the following year’s celebration.

Burns seems confident that the cost of this ambitious project will be more than justified. “We know the attendance will be here for the expansion, because we’re already putting 50,000 people through this facility. But our success is not going to be based on attendance, it’s going to be based on someone 20 years from now who’s winning their Oscar for costuming or cinematography, and they say that it all began for them on that fourth-grade field trip to the Oregon Film Museum.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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