The Bagdad Theater



The Bagdad Theater is the anchor of the Hawthorne strip on the east side of Portland.

This section of Hawthorne is a classic kind of five-block university district, with venerable bookstores and scruffy beggars and coffee houses and cheap Chinese restaurants in rehabbed brick buildings, copy shops, thrift stores, boutiques, funky studenty housing on the second stories. This is exactly like the Loop in St. Louis next to Washington University, or that stretch of 45th Street north of the UW campus in Seattle or that stretch of Route 66 (Central Avenue) through Albuquerque, or three dozen others across the country.

Hawthorne is an especially classic kind of university district, because Portland mysteriously still has civic stuff that disappeared elsewhere about 15 years ago: telephone poles bulging with band posters stapled over each other, apparently thriving record stores, and full-size coffin-style glass phone booths. The only problem is, there's no university around here. Hm.

In any case, like the Neptune Theater close to UW, like the Tivoli in the Loop, there's a beloved studenty movie theater on Hawthorne. That's the Bagdad.



Facts: the Bagdad opened in 1927, credited architects Thomas and Mercier, who were also responsible for two other theaters in Portland (the Oriental and the Blue Mouse), the McDonald in Eugene, and the Egyptian in Coos Bay. Seats 700. Shows second-run movies. Healthy business. Well-loved.

There's not much that's authentically Iraqi about the exterior of the Bagdad, to put it mildly. It's more Italian Renaissance / Spanish Colonial / vague Mediterranean with that red tile roof and blind arches. Even the neon sign doesn't date to the initial build, but it's eye-catching and the rounded marquee sure as hell owns that corner. It says "Bagdad" and some part of you just accepts it, wants to believe it despite the evidence.

Notice the Bagdad has a fly tower, a tipoff that it was conceived as a legitimate theater. A purpose-built movie house only needs a back wall. This also means there is, or was, a complete stage, a warren of dressing rooms and storage and maybe a covered-over orchestra pit.

As exotic movie palaces go, the Bagdad counts as a well-preserved mid-sized neighborhood exotic. The 1920s movie palaces fall into rough categories: the atmospherics, with asymmetrical side walls of the auditorium built to resemble the exterior walls of an Italian village, say, with twinkling lights in the skies and maybe passing clouds overhead if the Brenograph was working that night; the straightforward opulent houses where the design was supposed to signal high-minded refinement, gilt and red velvet and putti, like an opera house updated to the standards of showy terra cotta workmanship and the "classy" murals of 1925 or so; and then the exotics, where design elements from "Egypt" and "Morocco" and "Persia" and "Spanish Baroque" were wedged in together, stacked on top of each other in a six-way pileup, extruded through a press agent's withdrawal nightmares, and so on, you see what I mean.

The exotic theaters tended to be poured concrete structures. Concrete was relatively new in the 1920s, cheap, and amenable to whatever exotic architectural fantasy you might want impose on it. Concrete could give you big free-span spaces and cantilevered balconies, playful spatial effects like barrel vaults and curving ramps and complicated apertures without a lot of engineering, and, hell, minarets, if you want minarets. Plus, being ugly as hell if left untreated, concrete needed some kind of decoration.

The Bagdad is certainly poured concrete. Check out around back -- check out those tell-tale horizontal striations, still showing the woodgrain and the marks from the formwork the concrete was poured into, looking even more archeological than it really is.



An even better example from the same architects and the same year: the Oriental Theater at 828 SE Grand, razed in 1970, long gone, far more lavish, a splendid example of mix-match grab-bag kitchen-sink exoticism with an East Indian theme, visual quotations from Angkor Wat, on a base of reinforced concrete, and a truly crazed interior full of the smoky curls of mystique forming question marks and beckoning fingers in midair.

I like the word "exoticism" because it accurately suggests that generic "Elsewhere" scrambled & jumbled in the imagination. It's not about archeology. It's not about learning. It's about escape.

I also like the row of elephant heads.

The Oriental opened on December 31, 1927, with a silent bill that included Mack Sennett's two-reel "The Girl from Everywhere," a biblical feature called "Moon of Israel", and a souvenir program that read, in part:

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 best of the soft south wind from the sands of the vast Sista, stirring the dead leaves in the hills of Amalli, in the kingdom of Amarapar.



Despite all this East Indian or Babylonian or Moroccan or Mayan mystique, despite the popularity and financial success of the genre, despite the genuine reinforced-concrete engineering advances like the gigantic trusses installed in Grauman's Los Angeles theaters, despite the careful traffic planning behind drawing patrons into and through these structure using ornament and sightlines and ramps (movie palaces are serious and sophisticated mantraps, basically, and they're attractive because they still work), movie palaces never have gotten any respect as an architectural genre.

As the wonderfully blunt Pietro Belluschi told Meredith Clausen in an interview:

MEREDITH L. CLAUSEN: Well, what about buildings like the Fox Theater or the Paramount which-- for somebody of your generation and to some extent mine as well -- are decorative buildings, or decorated buildings, and somewhat out of favor. What do you do in a case like that? It's not a building that would have been saved in the long term.

PIETRO BELLUSCHI: Well, you see, that was built by a firm of architects who did maybe 50 or 60, all exactly the same. They got them out of the drawer and its ornament is the corniest, the worst that can be. The old decor was uninspired to say the least, [makes you throw up]. I still remember going there as a young man. There was a Wurlitzer coming up by elevator, with a man dressed in white playing the most awful loud organ music, and we all made fun of that. You know, this was the most vulgar kind of expression of our society, and we felt ashamed. All of a sudden then, it was closed and went out of business, and now it becomes a beautiful treasure from the past or something to worship. You know, that gets really depressing. But it satisfies most [some] of the people and also it preserves the past and it's cheaper. I don't know what you think. You tell me. I just can't digest that. I prefer to have something that works well and is of our time. But we wouldn't be able to convince anyone.

That's the Schnitz he's complaining about, which was once the Paramount Theater. The out-of-town architects he refers to were Rapp & Rapp.



Well, back to the Bagdad.

Since around 1987 the Bagdad has been owned and run by McMenamins, who own and run so many other historical properties in the region, the "Edgefield Resort" for instance which was once the extensive Multnomah County Poor Farm, that you might believe that historical preservation would be more successful overall, nationwide, if we just made every endangered property into a bar.

The Bagdad is far better inside than outside. Not a lot more convincing, but supremely comfortable. The lobby is modest, but dark and complicated and satisfyingly exotic. It's the auditorium that's really... civilized, for three small reasons. You wouldn't think these three small novelties would make any difference to your viewing pleasure, but they do.

One, the auditorium is not trapezoidal, it's more barrel shaped, more like a theater in the round. The outer walls are bowed outwards -- that's the flexibility of concrete, again. Why? Don't know. But in an odd way it is a much more comfortable arrangement.

Two, every other row of seats was removed at some point, and tables put in, which gives you a ton more legroom and psychological space and a better view of the screen, not to mention a nice flat place to put your, three, not your homework but your.....

Three, beer. Beer! Remember I said the Bagdad is owned and run by the McMennamins. You pay two dollars to get in, you order beer and pizza, you don't care as much if the movie's any good or not. Why doesn't genius happen more often?





Copyright 2010 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.