2019 was the best year the Clinton Street Theater had seen since Lani Jo Leigh bought it in 2012. The work Leigh had put into renovating the theater and fine-tuning its film and live theater programming had finally paid off, and the theater grossed about $300,000—a big leap from when Leigh bought the theater, and it was grossing under $100,000 a year. It seemed like that financial success was only going to continue: In early 2020, shows at the Clinton were already booked through October.
You know what came next: In March 2020, movie theaters shuttered due to Oregon’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Leigh initially figured the closures would last six weeks, predicting that, “We’ll for sure be open by Memorial Day.” Then: “We’ll for sure be open by July.” After Labor Day, she stopped making predictions.
During the long shutdown, the future of the Clinton wasn’t always clear. Leigh estimates that she pays $5 or $6 thousand in bills each month just to keep the theater afloat, and she wasn’t able to put all those expenses off during the pandemic.
“It was really devastating.” Leigh says of the months the theater was closed. “It’s hard to remember, even, how dark that was.”
But the 106-year-old theater, known for hosting a longest continuous weekly run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for 43 years, survived the shutdown, initially reopening in April with a 50-person limit. It’s now back to operating in full capacity. In some ways, the process has been a reawakening for the theater: , Leigh was able to reopen the venue in better physical shape than it was before it closed and says she has new intentionality and appreciation for the role the Clinton plays in its community.
The theater was able to cover its bills during the pandemic thanks to grants and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and Leigh and her team used the time to make improvements to the theater, including the installation of a new carpet, a fresh paint job, and updated electrical and HVAC systems. In addition to those grants, Leigh says support the Clinton received from its longtime patrons while closed helped keep the lights on. Some bought popcorn, branded face masks, and gift cards from the theater—but the most support came in the form of simple cash donations, ranging from $5 to $2,000.
“People sent me money throughout the whole year,” Leigh says. “I couldn’t be more thankful for what they did.”
The Clinton also raised $20,000 in September through a virtual fundraiser.
“I cried throughout the whole thing,” Leigh remembers. “To have all these people talking about what the theater means to them, writing songs about the theater, making pledges and sending money—it was just super special.”
For 54 weeks, Clinton’s Rocky Horror host Nathan Williams screened the film for himself to keep up the theater’s record of showing it every Saturday night for 43 years. So it was fitting that the theater’s first show upon reopening with limited capacity in April was the Clinton’s anniversary Rocky Horror screening.
“We just had to hit that anniversary,” Leigh says. “We needed to open up, even just for 50 people… People just needed something to be happy about.”
Leigh adds that the shutdown made her more keenly aware of just how important the Clinton, and particularly the weekly Rocky Horror screenings, are for the community.
“[Rocky Horror] provides a really great avenue for young LGBTQIA people to come and feel safe,” she says. “If they’re not sure of their gender or sexual identity, it’s fine, they can come, and nobody’s going to question them or call them names… Just to have a place where you can be around like-minded people—I’ve had kids tell me, ‘Rocky Horror saved my life.’”
“I don’t think I valued the theater as much as I do now,” she adds. “I don’t know what the future holds for me or this building, but I hope whatever happens while we do have this space, is that people feel they belong to something that is greater than themselves, greater than four walls. I thought about that a lot during the pandemic.”
Just a mile north of the Clinton, another beloved local movie theater is undergoing its own reawakening on the heels of the pandemic.
On July 29, SE Hawthorne’s Cinemagic will reopen with The Green Knight. The theater briefly reopened with limited capacity in May, but then shut again after new owners bought the theater and closed it down to make improvements.
Those new owners are familiar faces for Cinemagic frequenters: Nicholas Kuechler, who has managed Cinemagic for the last six years; and Ryan Frakes, who’s worked at Cinemagic and other Oregon movie theaters for 13 years, since he was a teenager.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Frakes, when asked why the pair decided to purchase the theater from previous owner Chuck Nakvasil. “When I got the job at 16, it was like, I wanted to do the filmmaking thing, and then you find out that this is the best job in the world. If you could ever find a way to work at a theater and do it for a living, I was going to sign up for that anytime I could.”
Frakes and Kuechler say they want to keep the core moviegoing experience the same for the theater’s neighborhood regulars. The improvements they’re making are about enhancing that experience, rather than drastically changing it: Deep-cleaning the space, incorporating the theater’s 100-plus year history into the lobby design, and putting in a new carpet that’s the same color as the old one. They’re also looking forward to having more control over which films the one-screen theater books, so they can match the tastes of their clientele.
“[Our regulars] tend to be into movies that are ambitious, pushing the limits,” says Kuechler. “There’s no reason that can’t be a big-budget blockbuster, but they want to watch something that isn’t just re-treading familiar territory. Better-reviewed movies tend to run stronger—but the things that run best are when the reviews talk about movies being ambitious.”
The new owners say they’re anxious to see how their customers respond to being in a packed, full-capacity theater, and are also willing to change their seating and cleaning protocol to make post-pandemic moviegoers more comfortable.
“Are people going to be anxious if we try and pack 200-plus people into this space?” Kuechler asks. “The first time everyone tries to do that is going to be a little weird.”
“We’ll be reading the room, reading our customers, trying to make them happy,” Frakes adds. “I’d rather have a half-full auditorium of people who are happy than a full room full of people on edge.”
When Cineamagic reopened briefly in May, it screened A Quiet Place Part II. Many theater patrons were excited to see the anticipated sequel in the same theater where they’d seen the first film.
“Everyone was so excited to come here and see A Quiet Place Part II, because they’d seen the first one here and had such a great experience,” Frakes says. He and Kuechler hope to keep that same spirit going when the theater reopens for good later this month.
“It’ll look a little better, it’ll sound a little better,” Kuechler says. “But it’ll still be the same place.”