One of the earliest theaters in Portland built exclusively for film exhibition (18), the People’s Theater opened at 7 pm on November 1, 1911 (10) as the first theater specifically built by the People’s Amusement Company. The People’s Amusement Company, at the time, was a relatively small, Portland-based firm which owned several other theaters in Portland and Oregon (7). Prior to the opening of the People’s Theater, the firm had little to boast about (excluding of course its ownership of the Oregon state rights to Milano’s Dante’s Inferno) but the new theater would soon change that. The theater, as Motography stated, had the unique distinction of being a largely “made in Oregon” theater with most of the materials and work going into its building coming from Portland and its environs (5)(11).
When built, the People’s Theater contained: a heating and ventilation system; a “new” lighting system; four floors which consisted of a basement that contained a retiring and reception room for the ladies and a restroom and smoking room for the gentlemen, a first floor with the lobby and auditorium, a mezzanine floor on which the central offices of the People’s Amusement Company were located, and a balcony; and, being built out of steel and concrete, was fireproof (1). The theater was remodelled for several thousand dollars in 1915 under the supervision of John F. Cordray. The job was accomplished over a period of six weeks with the majority of the work done after midnight and in the mornings so that the theater could remain open. New improvements included “the retinting and repainting of the whole interior...installation of an improved new lighting system and of a ventilation system...and various changes in seating arrangements and rest rooms for the convenience of the patrons.” Cordray was particularly concerned with the repainting as the violet tint of the decorations had “a tendency to make persons in the audience appear ghastly and old” while the newer warmer colors which replaced the violet made people “look about 20 years younger than before.” In his doing this, the Oregonian hailed Cordray as having “all but discovered the secret of eternal youth.” This renovation also saw the addition of a “depth intensifier” which “accentuates to a surprising degree the lights and colors of a picture, gives it increased depth, brings out its details and adds a stereoscopic effect” (3).
Ticket prices varied between ten cents for general admission, certain “choice” seats for twenty cents, and the “loge seats” which were reserved for twenty-five cents (5). It appears, however, that later admission prices were raised to twenty cents (21). The People’s Amusement Company, however, would not be the only one to own the People’s Theater as the ownership changed hands several times but most prominently was held by the Jensen and Van Herberg firm (16) and the Fox West Coast Theaters (9). Lasting a good eighteen years before it was remodelled a second time and renamed the Alder Theater (17), this theater located at the corner of the Alder and West Park streets could seat up to 1,400 people and cost 125,000 dollars to build (5).
While movies did play a larger role in the People’s Theater’s performances, vaudeville, theater, and music acts often accompanied the movies to provide a more well-rounded experience for the sophisticated audience this heater was hoping to attract. The opening night was no exception and featured, among other things, a newsreel of the World Baseball Series, a film called Lost in the Jungle, several vocalists, a photoplay, and a comedic film (12). One of the more entertaining vaudeville acts that made its way through the People’s Theater was Snowball, a “posing horse” (23).
The People’s Theater also held lectures from time to time as the one given by Governor Oswald West in 1912 accompanied by “an educational film” showing his trip to the eastern United States (6)(13). A similar “illustrated lecture” had been given by the Y.M.C.A.’s physical director, Albert M. Grilley, in 1911 and, at the time, Melvin G. Winstock of the People’s Amusement Company announced that he was arranging for there to be a series of similar lectures on “each of the public institutions of the State of Oregon” (2). To top off the memorable experiences one might have at the People’s Theater, the Oregon Statesman reported that a man with a “purple silk bandana” covering his face robbed the ticket booth of about a hundred and fifty dollars in 1927 (22).
The management of this theater often worked with outside organizations to expose certain groups to the films that the People’s Theater had to offer. For instance, the People’s Theater partnered with the Oregonian to offer children a free viewing of Marguerite Clark in “Snow White.” As the Morning Oregonian reported, special invitations were issued to “the children of the Juvenile Court, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, Frazer Detention Home, Salvation Army and other institutions as well as the baby homes that permit their children to attend benefit affairs”(15). This was evidently not a one-time event as the theater had a similar Christmastime charity matinee for children five years earlier in 1912 (25). The Moving Picture World, additionally, makes mention of a “Harriman” or “Railroad Day” during which over a thousand employees of the Harriman railway lines in Oregon came to view a film taken of them and also suggests that “all the large department and industrial concerns in this city (Portland) are planning with the management of the People’s Amusement Company to have special evenings for their employees at the People’s Theater at least once a month” (25).
To attract patrons, advertisements were regularly featured several newspapers including the Sunday Oregonian which often printed stills from the advertised movie in addition (24).
Children also seemingly were a target demographic for the managers of the People’s Theater who had several contests for school children including an essay competition with the topic being a movie shown at the theater (19) and promising tickets to a box seat for students who have the highest average in their class each month (25). Around the holiday season, Santa Claus frequented the theater and wrote down the wishes of all the children who came (25). Another contest held was a “baby contest” which was held concurrently with the exhibition of the film “Where Are My Children?” and the management offered fifty dollars in prizes (20). In 1912, the People’s Theater held a mock election contest by flashing pictures of presidential candidates and having both men and women in the audience write down their favorite candidate. The results of this “contest” were announced the following Sunday (3). Interestingly, women were allowed to “vote” in this primary which preceded the actual extending of the voting franchise to Oregon women later that year.
Generally, the People’s Theater skirted controversy especially in regards to censorship, however there were a few instances in which the intended audience of the management was clearly not children. In 1915, the Morning Oregonian reported on a private showing of “the Hypocrites” which prominently featured an actress “cloaked only in art.” Though the film was given the sign of approval from Mayor Albee, it remains unclear whether this film that criticized the hypocrisy of the church in the face of the, very literally, “naked Truth,” passed the Portland Board of Censors though it is known that another private exhibition was given for the “benefit of the Portland newspaper men” (14). On the other hand, in 1924, the film “Forbidden Paradise” was banned from the theater after only one showing and though the management would offer to cut certain moments out, the offer was declined and the film blocked completely (8).