This Old Ballroom 

The New Wonder Ballroom Holds Onto History and Blasts Off into the Future

On September 10, 1914, nothing much happened.

The First Battle of the Marne was winding down in France, Johnny Evers of the Boston Braves was being ejected from a game for swearing at a baseball, and Robert Wise (who would later direct The Day the Earth Stood Still) emerged, slime-covered and yelping, into the world.

That same day, a meeting took place in Portland. They--the Ancient Order of Hibernians--were holding the inaugural meeting in their brand-new building: a 12,000 sq. ft. hall in the Eliot neighborhood, just west of Union Avenue.

With more than 90 years of hindsight at our disposal, it is clear that the most consistent feature of this Northeast Portland building has been its ability to adapt. By the 1940s it was controlled by the American Legion. By 1960, it was a day care facility known as the Christian Community Center. In the 1980s Union Avenue was renamed for MLK, but by 2004 the last standing Hibernian Hall in the west had slumped into disuse--just another locked and shuttered doorway for crack dealers to lean against as they touted their wares.

In spite of all this change, odds are long that the original builders would have envisioned their hallowed hall being converted into a hip, multi-level entertainment hub, complete with bars, an art gallery, an outside eatery, and what might well become one of the premier music and theatrical venues in the city.

NEW CLUB ON THE BLOCK

Welcome to the Wonder Ballroom. It is large in here. Presently, there are paint fumes and the echo of a jackhammer bouncing off the walls, but soon, promises Howie Bierbaum--one of three integral partners in the project--the sound of music will dominate. Not in the same way that The Sound of Music (directed by Robert Wise, it so happens) dominated the box office in 1965, but still: Bierbaum is excited.

"Basically," he says, "what we wanted was a historically restored, McMenamin's-style venue, but without the hippie murals and feel."

To that end, the work crew is putting the finishing touches on a complete, six-month overhaul of the building, historically accurate with chandeliers and sconces, gothic colors, and retro bathroom fixtures. It's all part of the vision shared by Bierbaum, Chris Monlux, and Mark Woolley. As residents of Northeast, the three believe they understand the feel of the area, and want to bring something that contributes to the neighborhood.

The city agrees with them. With a slated opening date of June 25th, the Wonder Ballroom will be the first building in Portland to make use of new zoning rules, implemented in the waning months of Mayor Vera Katz's term, that make it both difficult to demolish historic structures and provide incentives to rehabilitate them. As well, the Ballroom team are applying for federal historic landmark status, which brings with it a 15-year property tax freeze, translating into hundreds of thousands of dollars in saved revenue.

For now, it's the project itself--not zoning and tax codes--that has many people fairly giddy with anticipation.

"It's going to be great, man," says Marshall Runkel, an assistant to Commissioner Erik Sten (who Bierbaum says was "instrumental" in bringing the project to fruition).

While some may wonder whether a full-fledged music venue is a good fit in such a tightly-spaced residential area, Runkel believes those fears are unfounded.

"Chris (Monlux) is an extremely savvy promoter and has taken proactive steps to work with the neighborhood and the immediate surrounding neighbors."

Runkel adds that the neighborhood will benefit from having the Ballroom nearby, in the form of rising property value. "Being close to a cool arts and performance venue will definitely have economic benefits."

The cultural benefit to the city, however, cannot be overstated. While the Northeast may be adrift in a sea of cool, there is a veritable drought where venues are concerned.

Says Bierbaum, "One of the attractions of the building that we realized is, once you go north of Broadway, there's no major entertainment."

Bierbaum claims would-be audiences have to go all the way to St. Johns in far NoPo to find clubs, galleries, and restaurants in a concentrated area.

The Wonder Ballroom is all three, and all three of the central figures are bringing to the table their diverse talents and experience with Portland culture. Chris Monlux, who made La Luna one of the city's best rock clubs in the '90s, is also one half of Monqui Presents, which has been bringing a wide array of musical acts to the area for 22 years.

The calendar, which reflects Monlux's musically schizophrenic taste, includes upcoming performances by Femi Kuti, Ray LaMontagne, Kiki and Herb, and Grammy-winning polka legends Brave Combo. Mark Woolley, who first started an art gallery in his wife's Pearl District walk-up studio, has grown a reputation as an art dealer showing work that matters. He will be adding a downstairs gallery space to the venue, opening in the fall. Finally, Howie Bierbaum (a.k.a. Baggadonutz), with a background in performance and the theater world, will be managing the whole affair, augmenting the musical bookings with theatrical performances from local and national playwrights.

Bierbaum sums up the strategy: "It's a reflection of who we are: Mark has a gallery, Chris has the rock 'n' roll acts, and I'm coordinating the theater and performance. We melded all of our backgrounds and made it as accessible as possible."

Most events will be all-ages--though older, vice-ridden patrons can escape the young-uns and get a better view of the show from a mezzanine bar that overlooks the main hall.

THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL?

For opening night, the Wonder Ballroom has decided to go completely local, albeit with an "East meets West" theme. The event will feature performances by MarchFourth Marching Band, aerial stunts, and belly dance from A-WOL Dance Collective and AURACLEdance, full rock choir ballistics from the Dahoo Chorus, and a late-night set with DJ Manoj.

The night will also offer an opportunity for a first glimpse at a new theatrical work by Wade McCollum. McCollum, familiar to many readers as the award-winning lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, will be showcasing a bit of the music from his new play, ONE, which re-imagines the life of Siddhartha in a modern, rock opera setting.

"I think it's gonna be a real versatile space," says McCollum. "I think their vision of a rock 'n' roll and theatrical venue is great, and they're really doing a good job of creating that type of place. It's big and small at the same time, and that's cool."

Mark Woolley has also planned a Buddhist-inspired art show to coincide with the ONE premier in September, also at the Wonder Ballroom.

But all that is down the road. For now, it will be enough to get the façade painted and toilets installed before they open their doors on the 25th. Bierbaum doesn't seem worried, even though he knows they're shooting high.

"Basically, we want everything: sort of a Great American Music Hall with theater. And art. And good food."

Who knows? They just might make history. And this building has seen plenty of that already.

Wonder Ballroom's grand opening celebration,June 25th, at 9 pm, $15-20 at the door. All ages, 21+ bar, 128 NE Russell, one block west of MLK. www.wonderballroom.com

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