Historic Structures

Oriental Theatre, Portland Oregon

Date added: August 5, 2021 Categories: Oregon Theater

Ground was broken for the "Crystal Ice & Storage Co. Office & Theatre Building" on March 21, 1927. By July, the reinforced concrete frame was in forms up through the third floor. Thereafter progress on the theatre was faster-paced, although minor obstacles, such as delays in the shipment of balcony steel from Poole & McGarry's plant, occurred. Cross-bracing trusses were found to be a foot too long, notwithstanding delays, the theatre received its brick and terra cotta facing in September and was completely ready in time for its gala New Year's Eve grand opening.

George Warren Weatherly, for whom the theatre was built, was born near Portland in 1868. Following a Portland public school education, he worked in the building trades. By 1892, he owned a confectionary from which he developed the Weatherly Creamery Company, an ice cream business. He is locally credited with inventing the ice cream cone (already in use in St. Louis in 1904) in 1905. In 1907 he merged his company with the Crystal Ice and Storage Company, of which he was President for 18 years. In 1925 he became Chairman of the Board of the Western Dairy Products Company, and in 1926 his interest turned to the erection of a first "skyscraper" for East Portland, the 12-story Weatherly Building. G. W. Weatherly later served on the Oregon State Tax Commission; as Vice President of the East Side Commercial Club; on the Portland Chamber of Commerce; as Vice President of the Citizens National Bank; as a Director of the Oregon State Bank; as Vice President of the Grand Central Public Market; and as President of the Weatherly Farms Corporation. He died in 1948.

Walter Eugene Tebbetts was the promoter who persuaded Weatherly to build a theatre adjacent to his office building and who was the theatre's first lessee and manager. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1885, graduated from a Beatrice, Nebraska business college, and had leased and operated Chicago's Italian Opera House before his arrival in Portland circa 1909. After a brief period in home building, he was running the Empire Theatre in East Portland by 1911. When the Oriental Theatre was being built, Tebbetts had owned, managed, or built 12 Portland moving picture theatres, including the New Grand; Alhambra, built by him in 1914; Montavilla; State; Highway; and Hollywood, a "suburban playhouse" built in 1926. He then sold his holdings to West Coast Theatres, Inc. and travelled abroad. Perhaps, although it is by no means certain, he visited the East Indies. He is said to have conceived the idea of a theatre designed to resemble an East Indian temple during his travels.

The Oriental Theatre opened on the night of December 31, 1927, with Walter Eugene Tebbetts named as both "Owner and Manager" in the souvenir brochure. The stage attraction was "An Atmospheric Prologue." Conductor Joseph Srodka and the "Oriental Symphony Orchestra" ascended on a platform to play. Another ascending platform bore organist Glenn Shelley and the console of the $50,000 Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra Organ. The silent films shown were "The Girl from Everywhere," a two-reel Mack Sennett comedy, "the first of its kind to be tinted in natural color," and "Moon of Israel," a biblical spectacle starring Maria Corda and Arlette Marchal and claiming a cast of 50,000 people. Mayor George L. Baker and the audience of prominent Portlanders and East Side boosters were presumably well entertained, although, considering the late hour, they probably did not find any need for the "Kiddie Circus Nursery" Tebbetts provided for patrons of his "only Downtown East Side first run" theatre. He evidently intended the "East Indian" ambiance of his 2,038-seat theatre to rival the films in entertainment value. The "2,400 lights in the massive dome" lighting the "finest examples of ornamental plaster in America" were meant to dazzle, as was Hubert Beckwith Groves's prose in the souvenir brochure, of which the following is a sample:
We are sure that by all this splendor and mystery of the East that was, those who tarry within the walls of this great temple will be impressed, and it shall be unto them as the heat of the soft south wind from the sands of the vast Sista, stirring the dead leaves in the hills of Amain, in the kingdom of Amarapar. Groves noted that Tebbetts had supplied comfort as well as luxury, as the following passage attests:
And you shall have chairs in the temple, such as there is now not in any other temple in your land. They shall be of full upholstering with three sets of steel springs, two and forty in number in each set. And the back will be made lovely and soft, and tilted at a most restful angle.

With "two big features a week: opening days Sunday and Thursdays," Tebbetts proclaimed his theatre, then the largest in Portland, the "first run, East Side home of Warner Bros., United Artists, First National, Pathe, Tiffany, and Radio Pictures." He managed the Oriental with imagination and showmanship, inaugurating a policy of benefit performances whereby local clubs and civic organizations could raise funds, and he emphasized family entertainment, featuring the basement nursery for the convenience of parents attending the 25 cent matinees or the 35 cent evening shows.

Tebbetts was ably assisted by Clarence F. Conant, formerly his protectionist at the Hollywood Theatre, who had been with him for 17 years. Conant was reputed to be "one of the finest lighting experts on the coast" and had invented many novel stage lighting effects. Seven of the nine projectors in the Oriental's "largest projection room on the Pacific Coast" were designed by Conant. He had "recently invented several novel devices that he will use for the first time at the Oriental," and he operated all curtains and lights from the projection room. (The Oriental boasted of the "largest electric switchboard on any stage," as well as claiming to be the "first theatre on the Coast to install a Third Dimension motion picture screen.")

Tebbetts's young orchestra conductor, Josef Srodka, had been a child prodigy billed at age 14 as the "wonder Violinist" during a concert tour of European cities. Before arriving in Portland circa 1924 to become first viola of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, he had been music director for the U. F. A. Palace in Berlin. The Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (Universal-Film Joint Stock Company), the largest European moving picture concern, had Srodka write film scores and made him company music advisor. He also directed the inaugural music at all U.F.A. theatre openings. As the new sound films supplanted theatre orchestras during 1928, this experienced musician's association with the Oriental Theatre was relatively brief.

When Tebbetts sold his holdings in 1926, there had been a national box-office slump that lasted, more or less, until the introduction of sound films. His theatre was probably adapted quite soon for "talking pictures," and by 1930 Exhibitors World-Herald awarded the Oriental a bronze plaque for the excellence of its acoustics and sound systems. Thereafter, Tebbetts advertised this, and added "WHERE THE SOUND IS BETTER" in neon lights to the Oriental's marquee. Tebbetts appears eventually to have turned his management duties over to Carl R. McFadden. Although the Oriental prospered moderately, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression eroded Tebbetts's hopes, and he left the enterprise after only five years.

After the management of Tebbetts and McFadden, the Oriental was leased to John Hamrick from 1933 to 1935 and was managed by Floyd Maxwell. In 1935, the theatre was leased to Evergreen Theatres, and by 1940 to the Rainier Theatre Corporation. The Fox- West Coast Theatre Company operated it for two successive leases, providing some of the better management. Fox-West Coast monopolized major Portland theatres during much of that period. Around 1952, the growth of television brought on a decline in attendance, and Fox-West Coast dropped its lease.

In 196l, although the Oriental had a history of proving burdensome to independent operators, Carl McFadden's son John tried to revive it as a first-run house. His success was only momentary. In 1965 the City of Portland leased the Oriental from Clayton Weatherly for 2 1/2 years as a civic auditorium. (The violinist Isaac Stern, shortly after his successful effort to save Carnegie Hall from demolition, appeared with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, providing one of the last major events in the theatre's history on February 28, 1966) By April 1968 Clayton Weatherly leased the house to the Oriental Theatre Company, a partnership formed by Don K. McMurdie, I. I. Benveniste, and A. J. Tersi, at a very low rent. The partners were assisted in various ways by Dennis Hedberg, a local theatre organ enthusiast who had been laboring to save the Oriental since 1959. In spite of all efforts, the new venture lasted only six months.

After the death by heart attack of Clayton Weatherly in May 1969, the heirs decided to sell, in spite of an offer by William Parr of Hamiston, Oregon to sign a premium lease to keep the theatre open. So large a theatre, by then surrounded by produce vendors, could not return a profit.

In November 1969 W. E. and R. H. Roberts bought the "skyscraper" and theatre for $322,000. On January 17, 1970, the contents of the theatre were auctioned off, and in February 1970 the Oriental was demolished to clear a parking lot for the office building next door.

In the town of Sherwood, some 15 miles southwest of Portland, a theatre named "The Robin Hood" was built in 1946 for about $65,000. It was maintained until 1962 but was neglected until 1969, when it was bought for restoration. With the demolition of the Oriental Theatre in 1970, some plaster sculpture was salvaged and reused in the newer theatre, renamed "The Sherwood Oriental Theatre." One or two heads from the auditorium dome, one full-sized figure, several frieze sections with bas-relief panels from vestibule or proscenium, elephant and monkey panels, an elephant mask and Makara head are among the reinstalled objects. Much painted "corbeling" has been used, in imitation of the former Oriental imitating Khmer architecture, behind the "modern" concrete, metal, and glass-block facade of the refurbished Sherwood Oriental Theatre.