Behind the giant movie screen in the Hollywood Theatre’s main auditorium is a bounty of treasures from the long history of the movie industry. Applied to the wall above an archway are three-foot-tall letters: “BEN HUR.” Scattered on the floor are piles of old projectors and film reels and a decaying popcorn machine. And in a room accessible only by a steep climb up a metal ladder are dozens of pipes and dusty percussion instruments that once connected to the theater’s Wurlitzer organ, used to soundtrack silent films and onstage entertainment.
That room has been the concern of the Columbia River Theatre Organ Society, a volunteer organization formed in 1994 to preserve organs like the one at the Hollywood. For the better part of a decade, they’ve been meticulously rebuilding and refurbishing the pipe organ that dates back to when the Hollywood opened its doors in 1926. On Saturday, Nov 24 they’ll be letting Portland movie lovers hear the results of their efforts for the first time, with a screening of the 1922 horror classic Nosferatu featuring a live soundtrack played by Dean Lemire, a jazz pianist and the staff organist at the Oaks Park roller rink.
This accomplishment didn’t come easily. Thanks to a 1997 fire that destroyed nearby buildings and damaged the Hollywood’s roof, the original organ chamber was a mess. And even after it was cleaned up, the three men behind this project—Dave Goding, Robert Kingdom, and Jack Powers—had to piece the organ back together using salvaged pipes and installing a 15 horsepower motor in the theater’s basement to feed air to the instrument. “You have to have some kind of dedication to do this,” Kingdom said as he showed me their efforts this past summer. “This has been my new retirement project.”
Surprisingly, the Columbia River Theatre Organ Society is only halfway done with their work: There’s a second organ chamber in the bowels of the theater that also needs their attention. All the better to immerse Portland in the sounds of Hollywood’s past glories.