Northeast Portland

Say goodbye to those old seats at the Hollywood Theatre

Say goodbye to those old seats at the Hollywood Theatre
An old advertisement on display from when the theater first opened. (Photo credit: Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com Web Producer/Reporter)

PORTLAND, Ore. - The movie-going experience at the historic Hollywood Theatre is about to get a whole lot more comfortable.

That's because the theater's old seats, which are around 70 years old, are getting replaced with newer ones donated by Regal Cinemas. It's all part of a long-term project to revamp the icon at Northeast 41st and Sandy Boulevard that first opened in 1926.

"The seats have been a big hurdle," said Doug Whyte, Hollywood Theatre's Executive Director. "A lot of people wouldn't come here because the seats were really uncomfortable. I'd get that feedback a lot."

The theater first had to raise about $30,000 to help pay for the installation, as well as some other improvements that are being done. In just two months they got the money they needed and now the work has begun. Volunteers are helping out and while it might seem like an easy thing to replace movie seating, it's actually a huge undertaking.

First the old seats have to be removed and that's no easy task because they are bolted into a concrete floor. Crews began working on cutting the bolts on Friday and what's left on the floor when the seats are removed then has to be ground down and the flooring will need to be patched.

"Then we'll do a new seat layout that's really precise because the new seats can't go right on top of where the old seats were," explained Whyte. "It's a pretty complicated process."

Whyte expects the project to take a few weeks. And those old seats? A few will be saved back to be put on display but the rest are being put on sale. Purchasers will get a certificate of authenticity to go along with them.

Heading up all the work is Joel Hamberg, a man who has been instrumental in the renovation of the old theater. He is a longtime resident in the neighborhood and like many Portlanders, remembers going to the Hollywood Theatre as a kid. He said he drives by it all the time and one day decided to ask how he could help make it look better.

"It (the facade) was dirty, it had stuff growing on it, it was mossy, it needed some TLC," he said. "So I approached them and asked what I could do."

Hamberg runs his own painting company and Portlanders can thank him for the new paint job at the Hollywood Theatre, inside and out, as well as the cleanup of the facade above the marquee. And now he's helping out with the seat project.

So what drives him to put in so much of his own time and resources? He said it's his love for the old Hollywood Theatre and it's connection to the community.

"People love this place - it's affordable and they can come here for a fun night," he said. "Everything imaginable is played here - from the old classics to brand new stuff to kids who make their own films."

Holland Rule, owner of a local cleaning company, is also helping out at the theater and he said he's excited to be a part of it all.

"I was actually raised just around the block," he said. "I lived on Alameda and I used to come here when I was a kid so it's pretty cool to see everything changing and getting updated."

"It's kind of a neat architecture," said Kevin Hunt, another volunteer who showed up on Friday to lend a hand. "It's not your basic design. Back in the day these kind of structures were built with a little bit more ingenuity and effort of mind - not just slapped together."

Hollywood Theatre will remain open during the work - crews will be replacing the seats one auditorium at a time so the others can still be used.

In fact, Friday night the second season of Portlandia will premiere there. It starts at 10 p.m. and admission is free. Folks are advised to show up early because the seats will likely fill up fast. While the stars of the hit show won't be on hand, there will be a pre-premiere party of sorts with older episodes of Portlandia being played before the debut of the new season's episode.

The Portlandia premiere is an example of the direction the Hollywood Theatre has been moving in as they try to compete not only with other local independent theaters, but also with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The idea is to provide a unique experience for movie-goers, something that will get them off the couch and out the door.

The Hollywood Theatre has hosted events like film festivals and Academy Awards parties to create that ambiance. Celebrities, even A-list ones, also make appearances there. Actor James Franco and filmmaker Gus Van Sant stopped by in late September to talk about the film 'My Own Private River' just before it was screened.

"I feel like we're a movie theater first but I'm also trying to develop us into a community space that can put on anything," said Whyte.

For example, the theater is currently working with a group that does live performances with films.

"And some of them are not only just the music but they'll take the sound off of a film and they'll recreate the whole sonic environment on stage," said Whyte. "They'll actually have people live on stage with all of these gadgets - the last one they had chainsaws for motorcycles. They have the band doing the music and then they have people doing live voice overs."

As far as the look of the theater, the next big thing will be the replacement of the marquee with one that hearkens back to the 1920s.

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