The Clinton Street Theater, the moviehouse and performance space that has occupied a corner of SE Clinton for over a century, could be facing permanent closure.
In a newsletter sent out to email subscribers today, Clinton Street co-owner Lani Jo Leigh admitted that the longer the coronavirus pandemic carries on, the slimmer the chances that the theater will be able to open its doors again.
"When can we open?" Leigh wrote. "Not this summer and probably not this fall. And the sad fact is that I simply don't have the financial or emotional wherewithal to weather this storm."
While she and her husband Roger are owners of the business, they don't own the building the theater is occupying. By her estimation, their operating costs—rent, utilities, insurance, etc.—are $4,000 a month. "If I can't startup again until January, it's $28,000," she wrote. "That's a lot of money to raise, and I'm not at all sure I want to ask this of our community."
The Clinton Street Theater opened in 1915 and is one of the oldest continually-running movie houses in the US. The business has changed hands many times over the years, with previous owners including renowned film archivist/historian Dennis Nyback and Portland Underground Film Festival founder Seth Sonstein. The Leighs purchased the theater from Sonstein in 2012 and have continued screening independent films and opening up the stage for plays and music performances. And, of course, the Clinton Street has earned legendary status for its screenings of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show—something the theater has been doing regularly since 1978.
Leigh's email also perfectly illustrates the issues that independent venues like the Clinton Street face as businesses around Portland look to reopen. As a single-screen theater with only 222 seats and a narrow lobby, they would face huge logistical hurdles to make sure ticket holders can see films or performances safely.
Think about our sweet, little space for a moment. Part of what makes the Clinton so endearing is its intimacy. A queue for walk-up tickets is impossible, because having only one person for every six feet would line the queue up across the intersection, or it would wind around on either the Clinton Pub side or the Lucky Horseshoe side and be too close to the folks enjoying the weather and a cold one at the outdoor tables. Having only prepaid tickets? That might be one solution, but even then, there could be a line. How would I ensure 6 ft. distancing in a lobby that has less than 4 ft. of space from the concession counter to the wall? The two aisles in the auditorium are probably less than three feet, so would I need to eliminate all aisles seats? How would I sell concessions in our tiny lobby? Once again, there's not enough room for 6 ft. of social distancing—not even for my staff behind the counter. A socially distanced line for the bathroom? Can't be done.
Elsewhere, Leigh says that she wouldn't feel comfortable crowdfunding, nor taking money from the government "that really should go to those without any type of assistance and support."
Take some time to read Leigh's email, and consider some of the options available in it to support the Clinton Street Theater, like virtual screenings or snapping up some popcorn and beer from their concessions stand.