Made in Oregon: the People’s Theater

The pride of the People’s Amusement Company, the People’s Theater opened to much fanfare on November 1, 1911. The People’s Amusement Company then had been relatively young as the firm had only been established in the February of that year (Morris 1911). But this was to be only the beginning for the Portland-based company which at its peak would control a circuit of over thirty theaters scattered across the Pacific Northwest (Nelson 1916) before merging with Seattle’s Jensen and Von Herberg firm in 1919 (The Morning Oregonian 1919).

The early success of the People’s Amusement Company provided the funds to build as its headquarters the People’s theater which was considered by The Moving Picture World to be “the finest picture on the Pacific Coast at the time of its construction.” It was in the building of this theater that one could imagine that Oregonians would feel a sense of pride as not only was the theater owned by a Portland company, but nearly all the materials and intricate decorations were acquired in Oregon or done by either Portland or Oregon natives (Morris 1911) (The Morning Oregonian 1911). The various contractors and firms who worked on the project were a who’s who of local companies. This would include the M.J. Walsh Company which did the electrical fixtures, Povey Bros. which did the glasswork, the Portland Brassworks which did the brasswork, and the Meier and Frank Company who procured the drapes (The Morning Oregonian 1911). In fact the most notable foreign product came from Mexico and was the onyx used for the lobby though as the Morning Oregonian remarked, “but local workmen installed it(the onyx), and it is a marvel of beauty and color.”

The People’s Theater was also unique in another aspect. It had been just earlier that year that the first “real theater built to house pictures”(Nelson 1916) had opened and this diminutive Star Theater could house only 300 patrons while the People’s Theater, as also one of the first movie theaters, had a seating capacity of 1400, nearly five times that amount (Morris 1911). The theater itself was part of a larger vision as the People’s Amusement Company hoped that soon other “People’s theaters” would soon follow in the model of the first (Morris 1911). However, this was not to be and by the late 1920s, the theater which had been largely built by Portland for Portlanders was controlled by the film industry giant, William Fox and his Fox West Coast Theatres (The Film Daily 1929).

While the later movie palaces would overshadow the People’s Theater, this theater has the distinction of showing that though other movie theaters would transport their guests to faraway places with foreign names, architecture, and furnishings, the People’s Theater could remain firmly in Oregon without denying itself the luxury representative of its competitors.

Morris, Charles F. 1911. “The People’s Theater at Portland.” Motography. November, 1911: 209-211.

Nelson, A. 1916. “Portland, Oregon, Looks Back Over Ten Years.” The Moving Picture World. July, 15, 1916: 409-410

The Film Daily. 1929. “Gigantic Buying Power Amassed by Fox.” March 1, 1929.

The Morning Oregonian. 1911. “New Theater Opens.” November 2, 1911.

The Morning Oregonian. 1911. “People’s Theater.” October 31, 1911.

The Morning Oregonian. 1919. “Northwest Film Houses Combine.” September 1, 1919.