After a decade of ownership, Clinton Street Theater is about to change hands again—which is not unheard of for a venue that's over a century old.
A new group of owners will assume operations at the arthouse starting Friday, April 1. That weekend also happens to be the theater's anniversary—it's been showing the The Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly for 44 years.
If you like what the scrappy little moviehouse and showspace has been kicking out since they reopened in April of 2021—like the Agnes Varda Film Festival, the Akira Kurosawa Film Festival, the standup evening with Ian Karmel—do not fret. One of the new owners, Aaron Colter (cofounder of Banana Stand Media), has been programming at the theater for nearly a year, under the direction of the outgoing co-owner, Lani Jo Leigh. It's their hope that the transition will flow with nary a glitch.
Lani Jo and Roger Leigh purchased the theater in 2012 from then owner Portland Underground Film Festival founder Seth Sonstein. For the next decade the Clinton continued to screen independent films, and host music shows, cultural events, and the longstanding, weekly Rocky Horror screenings.
However, in late May 2020, Lani Jo penned a thoughtful note to the theater's email newsletter audience, admitting an uncertain the future for the theater, in the face of the pandemic closures. She concluded it with:
Maybe there is a Clinton Theater angel somewhere. Maybe there is a group of you who, as stakeholders in the Clinton, feel like you want to take over the reins. I'm open to discussing any and all possibilities. I will work hard to make passing the torch possible, but like Moses and the Promised Land, I may not be the one to carry us over into a new beginning.
Colter says that he and Tom Kishel reached out soon after. They'd tried to make a bid on the theater in 2012, but lacked for funds. Both express an indelible fondness for the theater and its enduringly cool intersection, at Southeast Clinton and Southeast 26th.
"My partner and I had our first date at Dots, [and] we saw some of our favorite films and bands at the theater," Colter told the Mercury.
Joining Colter and Kishel is a team of similarly enamored film and music buffs—David Gluck (of Caravan, Inc.), Morgan McDonald, and Steven Williams, all of whom have backgrounds in music and media. Susan Tomorrow is a current employee at the theater. She moved to Portland last year from Austin—where she was a well regarded film programmer—and wrote the theater to ask about volunteer opportunities. Lani Jo just went ahead and hired her.
Colter says that with the new model everyone named—he, Kishel, Gluck, McDonald, Williams, and Tomorrow—is an owner of the business.
"The new owners intend to work regular shifts at the theater in addition to their full-time day jobs in order to keep the business profitable," he said.
On Friday, the new team dropped a Gofundme to raise funds for improvements to the theater's facilities and equipment.
The Clinton's calendar is already packed with upcoming events: Documentary Tuesdays, Church of Film Wednesdays. In April, they'll run a series of nature-themed films for Earth Day, and in August the theater plans to host a new production from Portland-based company The Broken Planetarium. Of course, they'll continue to show Rocky Horror every Saturday night at midnight.
This Sunday, there's a special event where patrons can say goodbye to Lani Jo and Roger.