The Grand Theatre was Oregon City’s second theater to show films and like many other theaters at the time featured variety performances rather than focusing on only films to make a revenue (5). Nevertheless, in a small town such as Oregon City it is quite remarkable that there would be two different theaters that showed movies in as early as 1908. The theater was opened on May 2nd, 1908 and located on Main Street between Seventh and Eighth streets in Oregon City (16). In 1909, however, the theater moved to its enduring location at 525 Main Street in a building that was owned by Charles Schram (17). This building was remodeled to house the theater and among other novel technologies had a raised floor, ventilation, and good lighting (4).
Originally, the theater was owned by Charles Schram and George Simmons but in 1911, Schram bought out Simmons’ holdings on the theater and became the sole owner and manager (21). The theater did good business, so much so that 1911 reports show that patrons often had to stand to enjoy a show. Undoubtedly to accommodate more visitors, between 1911 and 1912, the Grand Theatre was enlarged to accommodate 250 seats (23)(27). Moreover, in 1912, Schram acquired two new pianos, a Kimball grand piano and an Electric piano, for the theater (27). Business was good clearly as the Morning Enterprise reported in 1913 that Schram was planning to remodel the theater yet again and enlarge the stage to 22 by 30 feet and the seating capacity to somewhere between 500 and 700 seats (41). This plan apparently did not come to fruition as the theater continued to have only 250 seats up through the 1920s (60). Perhaps in hopes that the saying “like a moth to a flame” would work in a more literal sense, Schram installed a flaming area lamp in front of his theater. This was the first such lamp ever seen in Oregon City and it lit up the street to each side of it for quite some distance. The idea of this lamp was most likely borrowed from that of the managers of the Majestic and Peoples’ theaters in Portland which had similar lamps (43). Portland theaters were a great source of inspiration for Schram and the facade of the theater was remodeled in 1915 to resemble a “big town theater” (56). Yet another improvement to the theater was done in 1917 when Schram had new projection equipment installed in anticipation of another successful season (57). Business did stall for a bit in 1918 when there was a strike at the paper mills in town but soon got back on track (1)(2)(54). Schram told the Moving Picture World that business had “improved” after the strike and that he would continue doing good as there was no fear of influenza in Oregon City. The reporter theorized that the “sulphur fumes” from the paper mills may be what helps keep the place “clean” (1).
Tickets were 10 cents until 1915 when prices were raised to 15 cents (55)(58). Even then, feature films were often priced at 20 or 25 cents (9)(14)(20). D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was probably one of the most expensive showings and cost 50 cents for adults and 25 for children (59). In “Yuletide spirit,” prices were briefly taken down to 10 cents in 1915 during the duration of the Christmas season (10).
The theater showed a multitude of different films including news films from Pathé Weekly (6) which were shown every Saturday and Tuesday and a feature film every Monday and Friday (40)(49). Documentaries were popular with the “original moving pictures” of the Ohio floods in 1913 being predicted to be a “record breaker” by the Morning Enterprise, though that may have been because the footage was shown for only one day (29). Another popular documentary was done of Oregon prison life and shown throughout Oregon in 1912, making its way to the Grand Theatre on May 8th and 9th of that year (30). Local scenes were also seen at the Grand as a film of salmon fishers on the Willamette river in Oregon City was shown at the theater in 1913 (44). This film was shown as part of a “specially elaborate program” designed to celebrate the Grand’s fifth anniversary in 1913 (45) and filled the house by giving local residents an opportunity to see “‘movies’ of a scene they knew so well” (46). The theater itself had a brief brush with fame as actor Frank Lanning visited the theater and spoke with the audience on May 13th and 14th in 1912 (31). Another visitor to the theater was one Carl List who had been held “prisoner on a submarine” and spoke of his experience to an audience in 1916 (11).
Marketed as a family-friendly theater, the Grand generally avoided controversy though it appears to have been fined for a certain showing. The issue must not have been serious as Oregon City’s Morning Enterprise advertised the next day that the theater was going to “break the law again today by showing how Bettie Becomes a Maid” (18). This must have been an unusual occurrence as there is proof that Schram engaged in self-censorship as he did with a showing of The Kreutzer Sonata in 1915. Schram advertised the showing as being for sixteen and up but said that he would take a vote from the audience and if they thought it appropriate for children, he would allow patrons under sixteen (7). In 1916, however, the patrons of the Grand Theatre were forced to contend with the question of “what is art?,” as the Oregon City Courier put it, when the film The Warning showed the “nude forms of several of the actresses” (13).
Being the small-town theater that it was, the Grand was often at the center of community events and quite frequently going-away or birthday parties for Oregon City citizens would not be complete without a trip to the Grand Theatre (22). In charity work, the theater served as the location for a 1912 fundraiser done by the Oregon City High School to benefit their athletic program. This performance would include high school vaudeville acts in addition to the usual movies (25)(26). In 1912, another smaller-scale fundraiser was done to help Mrs. Anna Snyder who lost her eyesight and, like the high school fundraiser, it was a success (34)(35). The Grand was so much at the hub of social life that in 1912 there was even a twenty-five dollar incentive offered for the first couple who was willing to get married on the stage of the theater (28).
It remains unclear whether any Oregon City couple went for this unique opportunity to start their marital life. The theater was connected to many local events as well and often had deals in which theatergoers were given five-cent coupons to the nearby Poultry Show or vice versa when in 1908 visitors to Oregon City’s “Market Day” were given free tickets to the then newly opened Grand Theatre (3). Other handouts included a “fine sugar shell” which was given to every third lady attending the theater on January 22, 1913 and fans, also for the ladies (47). Additionally, there is an indication that prizes and souvenirs were given out every Wednesday (42). One “prize day” offered particularly hefty prizes with three 15-pound boxes of candy given away during a 1PM showing and six 15-pound boxes given away each during the 8PM and the 9:30PM showings (28). Another interesting prize that can only be testament to the agrarian roots of Oregon City was 20 spring chickens which were given away at the Grand in concurrence with Tabor and Green, a “colored musical act,” in 1912 (32). Children often got free presents too as courtesy of the theater management (33). Perhaps the most interesting strategy to gain clientele was the “Raffles” scheme (see: Raffles of the Grand Theatre). Citizens of Oregon City were told that if they could identify a mysterious “Mr. Raffles” while holding a coupon as evidence that they had attended the Grand Theatre the night before, they could win ten dollars (36). This of course led to several instances of mistaken identity (37)(38) before Mr. Raffles was finally identified as a “Mr. Brown” (39).
These methods to attract a larger audience only go to show that Oregon City had quite a few competitors for the Grand Theatre when it came to entertainment. The earliest competition was with the Electric Theater, which was the first to show moving pictures in the town, and later competition included the Arcade, Liberty, and Star theaters. For some time it seems that the Grand Theatre stayed ahead of the game and was the first theater in town which could afford to raise prices to 15 cents without losing customers but perhaps it was this stiff competition that drove the Grand Theatre to closing down. It is unclear as to why or when the theater closed exactly but the last recorded articles are from 1929 and with the Great Depression then looming there could numerous reasons as to why the theater shut down.