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PHOENIX ON SOUTH F STREET: The Re-Emergence of the Alger Theater

by Dennis Cozzalio Jul 24, 2019

Everybody has something that chews them up and, for me, that thing was always loneliness. The cinema has the power to make you not feel lonely, even when you are.” – Tom Hanks

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In 2015 I wrote an article, published here and on my blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, entitled “The Smallest Show on Earth: In Memory of the Bijou (1957) and the Alger (1940-2015)”*, a piece which amounted to a eulogy for the hometown theater of my youth in Lakeview, Oregon, a run-down but enduring single-screen movie palace where my own youthful loneliness had been staved off countless times that had recently run into the buzzsaw of digital expansion and the cut-off of 35 mmm prints of new releases, resulting in the closing of the theater doors after 74 years. That piece concluded with the following three paragraphs:

(I)n March 2014 the reels of the Alger Theater’s 35mm platter projection system spun their last. The theater, much like Hollywood itself, had long since ceded any attempt to appeal to any other audience beyond the PG/PG-13 market, the only folks left in town who could be counted on to occasionally show up for a movie. It’s grimly appropriate that the last picture show would not be a landmark like Red River (the current Alger management likely being unaware of that movie, or The Last Picture Show, for that matter), or even an adult-oriented audience-pleaser like the recent Oscar-winner Argo. Instead, it was the generic animated movie The Nut Job, and a sadder, more ignominious finale for my beloved theater I couldn’t possibly imagine. According to a report filed by my niece, who was very upset about the theater closing and tried herself to generate some local interest in preserving it, the last show was just as nondescript and lacking in fanfare as one might expect. The end credits playing before an empty auditorium, what there was of the audience having already listlessly filed out, the marquee lights went dark over South F Street, the main drag on which the Alger held dominance for 74 years, and save for one special screening– author Cheryl Strayed brought the movie version of Wild to town, Lake County being where she wrote the ending of the account of her epic personal and physical journey along the Pacific Coast Trail– those marquee lights haven’t been back on since. It’s not clear as yet whether the township of Lakeview has even noticed.

Last year I got a message from a friend still living in Oregon who said she’d heard that the Alger was about to be purchased by a new owner, given a digital upgrade and a paint job, and reopened. Did I dream this? If it were true, it would be an unlikely deus ex machina, given the history of this theater, and given the economic straits in which the town is currently mired. It’s the sort of dream of the past and its familiar faces that I wake up from all the time. But no, I didn’t dream it. The message was real. And whether or not the resurrection of the Alger makes the transition from rumor to reality—and the town’s active interest in making it happen cannot be overemphasized– is a story I have been following closely and will continue to keep my eye on.

Maybe the Alger Theater doesn’t mean the same thing to the current citizenry of Lakeview that it does to me. Maybe it never did. However the general population may have felt, it’s difficult for me to discount the importance such a tiny blip on American culture as the Alger had on the forming of my mind and my desire to see more than what could be offered on the dusty, muddy streets passing outside its doors. If they’re lucky, everyone reading this will have a place like it nestled in their memories, a place where love for what the movies could show us, could inspire in us, the emotions they could stir, was instilled and made foundation for the appreciation of what movies could be that we had yet to understand. When I see the empty shell of that theater, standing abandoned and ignored at the edge of my hometown, I don’t feel like a piece of me is lost. No, I know right where that piece is at. It’s still inside those doors, in communion with the dusty old red curtain, the forever dimmed house lights running the edges of the auditorium at the ceiling level, the mysterious projection room, from whence all those amazing sights and sounds emerged, the tidy confines of the snack bar, watched over by the old Thornton’s Drug clock on the wall, its timekeeping partner, the one bearing the Lincecum Signs ad, still perched in the auditorium above the door to the back of the screen, stage left. Yep, I’m still in there, sitting in those worn-down seats, waiting for the next movie to start. By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.

I probably need to ask forgiveness if the general impression of those paragraphs make it sound as though the fate of my old hometown movie theater matters strictly, or largely, in terms of what the place meant to me. I read those paragraphs, which include lines in reference to the ultimate shutdown of the theater in 2014 like “It’s not clear as yet whether the township of Lakeview has even noticed,” and words questioning whether or not the citizenry held the theater in the same sort of esteem as I did, and it’s hard not to feel just a trifle embarrassed. The truth is, for anyone who has spent the majority of their life in my hometown, it is likely that the Alger Theater once meant, or still does mean, a whole lot more than my words seem to allow, even if ultimately the movies themselves did not.

The conclusion of the article finds me imagining a significant piece of myself, who I am, still residing inside the walls of that theater, waiting for the next movie to start, and hoping against hope that “By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.” It is an infrequent occurrence, to be sure, but it’s my happy duty to report that in this instance the modicum of optimism with which I managed to finish off that piece has apparently been rewarded, including the appearance of that unlikely deus ex machina.

Beginning in December of 2017, a group known as the Lakeview Community Partnership (LCP), a collective of concerned citizens who formed several years earlier to revitalize downtown Lakeview, made it known that efforts to renovate and revitalize the Alger Theater would become a primary focus of their concern.  Spearheaded by the organizational acumen of folks like Ginger Casto, South Central Oregon Economic Development District (SCOEDD) rural development specialist, the LCP’s efforts since that declaration have managed to kick up $342,746  to-date through fundraisers and donations, a substantially hefty amount to be delivered from a sparsely populated town and county whose level of interest in backing such a project I was among the first to question. On top of all that, earlier this year the LCP were the recipients of an $111,000 grant from the (https://www.oregon.gov/oprd/hcd/shpo/pages/mainstreet.aspx) Oregon Main Street program, a state-based coordination effort that, according to their website, “works with communities to develop comprehensive, incremental revitalization strategies based on a community’s unique assets, character, and heritage.” That grant money was matched by the LCP to the tune of $58,000, creating a substantial fund from which to proceed.

And then there’s that deus ex machina. After finding themselves at a crossroads in terms of where they could go without obtaining outright ownership of the building, seemingly out of the blue a community member, operating under the moniker “Outback LLC,” offered to purchase the building for a period of time that would allow the LCP to work their fund-raising magic. The benefactor leased the theater building to the LCP for a period of one year for the staggering sum of one (1) U.S. dollar, after which a new lease would be negotiated for a nominal fee somewhat, but not outrageously, higher than that single-digit fee. Holy Cloak-and-Dagger Philanthrophy, Batman! In light of all these fortuitous occurrences, Casto projects that the LCP will assume full ownership of the Alger Theater in August 2019.

So now, of course, the question is, what’s next? Casto and the group are riding a high of community enthusiasm that she hopes will sustain the LCP effort through its next phase of renovations for the theater; the recent influx of cash, and the hope of more, has spurred plans for, of course, the acquisition of a digital projector and upgraded sound system. But more pressing are the continued upgrades that will be necessary for the building structure itself, including electrical wiring, cosmetic improvements to the interior (which is, for an almost 80-year-old art deco movie palace, remarkably well preserved), a new screen, replacement of the tile exterior, restoration of the original one-sheet display cases on the theater’s frontage, and shoring up of the marquee itself, which shows signs of sagging, and restoration of its intricate neon patterns. The LCP have already taken steps to bring back the neon-lit tower signage that marks the entrance to the downtown area from the south, and earlier this year it was reintroduced at full glow to a cheering crowd at an evening sign-lighting ceremony.

I was able to spend some time this past week in the lobby of the Alger talking with Casto and LCP Volunteer Facilities Manager Mike Cuff, about their efforts, and their enthusiasm for the somewhat daunting scope of the project is truly infectious. The doors of the theater will be open every Friday night all summer long for a series of movie screenings, sponsored by local merchants, intended to keep their fund-raising efforts fresh and at the top of the community’s mind. Casto and the LCP polled interested businesses as to what they’d like to see and sponsor this summer, and with information in hand she went about obtaining the minimal screening rights from the films’ distributors. Voila! A summer movie schedule was born. Things kicked off in June with a near sell-out screening of The Sandlot courtesy of a local electrical company, and two weeks ago Bohemian Rhapsody played, funded by the local Ace Hardware establishment. Naturally, my first question was, in the absence of that impending digital projection system, or even the 35mm platter system which still resides (nonfunctionally) in the Alger’s projection booth, how were these screenings even taking place?

“You’re gonna laugh,” Casto told me, as she described the laptop computer/DVD projection system devised and fine-tuned by Cuff, which sits near the stage, mid-auditorium, that has been the Alger’s central beacon of cinema over the past year. And I admit I did chuckle at first. But when I stepped into the auditorium this past weekend during the LCP’s screening of the undeniably appropriate The Majestic (1993), made possible through the sponsorship of the local high school class of 1959 which was gathered in town for their 60-year class reunion, I must also admit that I had to swallow a portion of my disbelief. Though quite obviously a DVD projection, the image throw was strong enough to fill the entire screen with more-than-adequate brightness. The Alger suddenly felt alive again.

And maybe the biggest surprise was the quality of the sound. The acquisition of those platter projectors to replace the original carbon-arc classics that had been a mainstay of the Alger for 60-some years marked an improvement in audio quality, if not always picture. But even given the Alger’s almost complete lack of well-adjusted acoustical temperament, the magic Cuff had worked with the laptop-amped audio was cheering, to say the least, an emblem of the spirit of small-town ingenuity that has gotten moving pictures back on the Alger screen for the first time in five years, and it bodes well for what could happen when the theater really gets back on its feet. Because if the current setup works for now, Casto says, “just think what it’s gonna look like when the digital projector gets up and running.” As expressed by Casto, and particularly by Cuff, who could barely be contained as he related his history of exploring the building (and whose Navy engineering experience has been a central element in the restoration effort), that sort of optimism is, I think, key to the continued success of the LCP’s Save the Alger campaign.

However, to hear Casto and Cuff tell it, they and the LCP are not alone, and I’m not referring just to the copious financial support they’ve received from within and outside of the community. Casto claims that each time upon entering the theater she, or one of the LCP’s volunteer staffers who man (or more pointedly, given the almost exclusive gender makeup of that staff, woman) the box office and candy counter, gives a special little shout-out. “Hello, Lloyd!” someone can reliably be heard to say, a phantasmic tip of the cap to one Lloyd Tatro, the local jack-of-all-trades who was the theater’s projectionist for decades, including the entirety of the time I was an Alger regular as a kid. Tatro, who died in 2012, also served as the theater’s one-man maintenance crew and was also the guy who changed the marquee every week. (That means it’s he who must be thanked for the joy I experienced when I woke up one morning in 1975 to see the following up in lights: “THIS WEEK! ROGER MOORE IS WARD BOND 007 in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.”) But it’s not only Tatro’s memory Casto and company are acknowledging. With tongues firmly in cheek, they suspect his spirit is still roaming around the theater in some capacity, as evidenced by the occasional odd occurrence, unexplainable noise, strange displacement of a piece of equipment, or a lucky circumstance that seems to support or otherwise point in the direction of realizing their restoration goals. And really, what near-80-year-old movie theater wouldn’t welcome its very own ghostly inhabitant?

With Tatro’s incorporeal presence to guide the way, and with the rousing support of the community, which it seems would like nothing more than to get into the habit of going to the movies once again, it’s difficult to discount the optimism with which the LCP approaches their task. Their great strides toward preserving the memories of generations of members of this tiny Southern Oregon community should be celebrated, but Casto, for one, isn’t ready to rest on the side of the mountain they’ve only partway finished climbing. “It’s really wonderful to see how Lakeview has gotten behind the spirit of this project,” she says, sounding weary but also determined. “But we’ve got a ways to go, and it’s nice to know we can get there. And we will.”

Next weekend, a John Wayne double feature: True Grit and The Searchers, brought to you by a consortium of Lakeview motels, seemingly incontrovertible proof that the survival and robust future of the Alger, as facilitated by the intelligent and creative efforts of the LCP, is in good hands indeed.

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Maybe you, Dear Reader, have an Alger Theater of your own which remains dear to your heart. If so, I would recommend checking out what’s going on, if anything, to kickstart a similar community-based campaign for your own little corner of cinema history. It’s my hope in writing this piece and sharing it with my FOVC/Trailers from Hell readership that a bit more of the spotlight might be cast on similar efforts all over the country, that there’s a theater somewhere out there which could benefit from your signing on to help or contribute financially. And if not, maybe you’ll consider pitching in to the Save the Alger campaign. You can donate by clicking the link to the Lakeview Community Partnership page  here, or the Alger Community Theater page link here, or at the Save the Alger page on the Lakeview Community Partnership official website.

*The Smallest Show on Earth: In Memory of the Bijou (1957) and the Alger 1940-2015

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.