Aaron Harding McDonald was the proud visionary and owner of the Lowell Theater. This Twelve Hundred and Fifty seat gem was a culmination of Mr. McDonald’s life work, as the previous owner of the three Eugene theaters: The Heilig, The Castle and The Rez. With an unforeseen death on March 26, 1925, A. H. McDonald passed away just weeks before the Lowell Theater’s grand opening. His estate of approximately $94,000 was inherited by his wife and only son, Donald McDonald. Donald was appointed the administrator of the Lowell Theater and A. A. Rogers, W. T. Gordon and L. I. Raywer were appointed appraisers.
On May 7th, 1925 the entire town celebrated the grand opening of the Lowell theater and remembered their adored A. H. McDonald. Towns persons including the Messer’s, Schaefer’s, those associate with the McDonald family in the theater enterprise: Frank L. Chambers (President), W. W. Calkins (Vice-President), Bruse Brundage (treasurer), all who represented the Eugene chamber of commerce: McMorran and Washburne and many friends and family all signed a petition to change the name from the Lowell theater to the McDonald theater. With the support of Major Lowell Smith, United States Army, (who A. H. McDonald named the theater after), the name of the theater officially changed to the McDonald theater on grand opening day.
The Eugene Guard wrote an article expressed that “the spirit is felt immediately as one enter the new Lowell [McDonald] theater. Here the ambition was to present a theater that would be ideal in every way to present first of all an atmosphere that would put a person in the most receptive mood for genuine enjoyment.” This was achieved through the Romanesque style. Roman arches by the Byzantine reach clear up to the coved ceiling. Inside the real surprise comes as a spacious foyer greets you, heavily carpeted, specially designed iron chairs, console table, tapestry, and a huge mirror on the wall, four beautiful ivory chandeliers hung from grilled rosettes on the ceiling, charming arched entrance to the main floor, backed by silk plush drapes. Double ramp from the foyer to the balcony is one of the most charming features of the new structure.
The McDonald Theater was the largest theater of any other theater in Eugene, with the finest, most modern equipment of any state or northwest. The entrance was long, with a spacious lobby and a wall ‘neatly decorated’ with four large framed futurist masterpiece paintings. The auditorium was lit by light baskets on each side near the ceiling which included three colors and white in each basket; resulting in beautiful lighting effects. There was a garden beneath each organ chamber, with the Wurlitzer organ which was twice as large as the one at the Rex theater. The spacious stage was finished with grey blue drawn curtains.
McDonald Theater continued to be a highlight in the The Eugene Guard through the 1900’s, filling up pages of the newspaper with upcoming events. The paper announced on May 5th, 1925 that the opening play was “Madame Sans Gene” starring Gloria Swanson and Warack Ward, which was the first location this production was performed.
On June 3rd, 1927 the paper had 4 adds on one page. One was an announcement was of a look alike contest for the famous actresses Laura LaPlante, Marry Phlibin, and Marian Nixon. The winners of the contest were given a trip to Portland and ride on the Universal float in the American parade on June 17th. Another add announced that the famous Miss Marylin Mills and her horse will be making an appearance the following Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Miss Mills was one of the most famous women in motion picture at that time, starting her career as a double for other famous actresses such as Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Florence Vidor, Jetta Goudal, Greta Garbo and many others. Another add shown on the same page in the Eugene Guard that day was showing of “Gilda Gray Cabaret” at the McDonald Theater. The movie ran from 1pm to 11:30pm and entry was “regular price”. Other acts that day include Delbert Faust, Eugene’s own Broadway star performing matinee and night in New York and a special showing of “Screen Test” featuring president Arnold Bennett Hall.
Throughout the years, the McDonald theater had under-gone multiple restoration projects and owners that encourages the theater to thrive. But in early 2001 the theater struggle to maintain business with new big box theaters and decided to close its doors. The final feature shown was “Cast Away”.
Fortunately, in September 2001 the McDonald theater re-opened as an all-ages music venue. The theater underwent several months of painting, plastering and retrofitting to make it into the music venue it is today. The first band to play was a reggae group named “Burning Spear” and the theater continues to play mainstream reggae, hosts private weddings, high school proms, and local children’s stage performances. The McDonald also caters to non-profit organizations and encourages the community to take advantage of this beautifully maintained historic landmark for events, celebrations, lectures, and fundraisers.