TWO WEEKS BEFORE 2008's inaugural Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Patton Oswalt called and said he wanted to perform. In the final show of the weekend, Oswalt packed the Mt. Tabor Legacy theater and essentially saved the event, selling enough tickets to ensure it would break even.
The Mt. Tabor hosted other indelible performances that first year, including upstart Ron Funches removing his shirt and putting himself on the map of Portland comedy, and a rollicking James Adomian, wearing a suit, performing his entire set as George W. Bush.
Now on firm ground and entering its eighth year, Bridgetown bids adieu to the Mt. Tabor, now the Alhambra, as well as the entirety of upper SE Hawthorne—which has heretofore served as the festival's heart.
That means no more Eagles Lodge, and the odd, kitschy ambiance that it brought. Nor, tearfully, the Tanker's late-running, bipolar, supercharged open mic.
"It's very bittersweet," says Festival Director Andy Wood. "Hawthorne has been the vibe of the thing from the start. Now it feels like we're following some trend by chasing lower Burnside, but we're not—we're not—doing that."
The seeds for leaving Hawthorne were sown last year after the Bagdad Theater ceased hosting live shows, leaving Bridgetown in need of a larger venue. As a result, 2014's festival was spread out, almost cumbersomely so, from the triangle of upper Hawthorne to the Doug Fir, Bossanova, and lower Hawthorne. For the first time, the venues weren't easily walkable, and getting in and out of cars and cabs was a hassle that whittled away time to actually see shows.
This year, with Bridgetown re-centered around Lower Burnside, the longest walk between venues—Norse Hall and Bunk Bar on SE Water—is one mile. Doug Fir will be the hub of the fest.
"I think people might like this even more," says Wood. "Especially people from out of town, because it's walkable to downtown when they're not doing shows."
As for maintaining tradition, My Father's Place will replace the Tanker as host of the open mic, and this writer is excited by the prospect. While part of the Tanker's charm might have been its pint size, it was often difficult to get a seat, much less a sightline. Also, My Father's Place is enough of a dive to spur the mic's long-running, last-call sense of debauchery.
"We'll just have to re-train people," says Wood. "Who knows if the first year will be as much of a thing as the Tanker always was, because that became a known thing."
Besides the shifting of venues, a less-seismic change is afoot: Bridgetown is getting a bit smaller. Last year's fest peaked at around 200 comics. This year there are roughly 130, with many performing at the fest for the first time.
"I think this is the biggest percentage we've drawn from the blind submissions," says Wood. "I think it is a really good mix of a lot more up-and-coming talent, and I think we can be proud of our diversity in every other way also. I don't think it's too-too-many white dudes."
Indeed, even with the changes, Wood feels confident in the approach to this year's Bridgetown.
"I don't want to jinx it," he says, "but I think we've been on top of it more than we have in past years."