A multi-year effort led by nostalgic memories and generous residents culminated last Monday, as escrow was completed for acquisition of a historic movie theater in Lakeview.
The Alger Theater, built in 1940, for nearly 80 years has stood as the social epicenter of life in Lake County. Its classic art deco style and 1940s vintage fixtures, concessions, classic seating style, and iconic neon sign hearken back to a bygone golden age of Hollywood. Not many of the classic community theaters still stand, much less operate regularly, but thanks to passionate citizens’ efforts the theater thrives once more.
The Alger was closed unceremoniously in early 2014 when the owners found it financially unfeasible to continue operations after nearly all film distribution had shifted to digital from 35mm projectors, and the owners were unable to afford a digital projector. A year later, under advisement of the Oregon Main Street Project, a new 501c3 was formed — the Lakeview Community Partnership (LCP). Its intent is to revitalize downtown Lakeview through various efforts and committees, from promotional and historic recognition to assisting business owners with upgrades.
While LCP has undertaken several promotional and financial campaigns to enhance Lakeview’s downtown area, from an early get-go it was obvious that what the community, and LCP members, were most passionate about was bringing back Lakeview’s historic movie theater.
The owners at the time wanted over $300,000 for the building. Ginger Casto, rural development specialist for South Central Oregon Economic Development District (SCOEDD), and LCP member, used a connection with architect and historic theater preservationist George Kramer, inviting him to Lakeview to inspect the site to estimate cost of restoration.
“He (George) came here in 2016 and just thought it was amazing,” said Casto. “It was all intact, he couldn’t believe how well it was built for the time period.”
Purchase and lease
Fundraising began in 2017 to acquire the theater, and a local business owner agreed to help out the effort by purchasing the Alger and leasing it to LCP for $1. With a digital projector on hand to show DVDs, theater use ramped up with regular second-run film screenings as well as utilizing the large stage for occasional concerts and special events.
In April over $120,000 had been raised, so LCP applied for a grant through Oregon Main Street for $111,685 — 70% of the remaining amount needed for acquisition. To Casto’s surprise, every dollar of the request was granted, and as of last Monday the historic Alger Theater completed escrow – the nostalgic centerpiece of so many residents now finally the full property of the community.
While the theater is being utilized once again, many upgrades are needed for the 80-year old structure. According to Casto, various foundations are already knocking down the door eager to lend financial support, but a strategic plan and renovation plan must first be completed. First on the list is an electrical system overhaul, followed by repair of damaged bricks and earthquake retrofitting, upgrades to the heating system, ventilation for the projector booth, and repairs and new paint to the façade. Earlier this year the grand neon marquee display was restored to its original shine, LCP opting to maintain the historic glow of neon rather than convert to LED lighting.
“I am really hard-nosed about keeping the 1940s ambiance, and I’ve upset some people,” said Casto. “Some board members have been prudent in thinking about energy efficiency, and neon isn’t energy efficient, but it’s nostalgic. LED doesn’t have that glow.”
Behind the scenes
While the board of directors oversees finances and planning, a separate group of volunteers (including Casto) work on programming decisions. There are also volunteers who run concessions and clean-up, and a group of students known as the “Alger Angels” that continue to perform plays on the theater’s stage each year.
So far the most successful screenings have been of kids films like “The Sandlot,” though recent showings of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” drew large crowds. Casto doesn’t envision the theater doing many first-run films, the cost of equipment and licensing fees is simply too daunting; but through local business sponsorships of screenings LCP has been able to pocket profits from monthly events to help with building upgrade expenses.
Casto wants to see more classic films, which will begin in October with the 1944 black-and-white classic “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman. Other plans include “Romancing the West,” a multimedia cowboy poetry performance that matches storytelling with films and western music; a Christmas program, academic lectures and TEDtalks, concerts, community theater, and possible partnerships with both Lake County School Districts and the Ross Ragland Theater for student-oriented arts immersion experiences.
Dreams come true
“I am an eternal optimist, so I get excited about possibilities, and so far everything we have imagined has happened,” said Casto. “The community support has been amazing, businesses have stepped up to sponsor events, and we are having conversations about more, but we have to be methodical.”
The theater, which doubles as a pseudo-museum to 1940s Hollywood, has been approached several times as being proverbially “put on the map” as a historic theater, but Casto wants building upgrades to be the priority over promotion at this time. While infrastructure may change, Casto is adamant in keeping the historic ambiance, down to the historic 80-year-old theater seats despite some complaints to upgrade to modern seating.
Also under consideration is acquisition of the adjacent building, formerly KBE (which was recently purchased by the Cow Creek Tribe). The now vacant side building, part of the original structure of the Alger, has been discussed as the possible site of a museum showcasing aspects of downtown Lakeview and the Alger. Sadly, when the theater’s original owner, Bob Alger, passed away, his family threw out much of the memorabilia affiliated with nearly 80 years of film screenings.
For now, the Alger Theater stands as a nod to history, a nostalgia-filled romp through the past century of film; and with its acquisition now once more the centerpiece of social life in Lakeview.