History of a Prominent Portland, OR, Movie Theater
Cast your imagination back to the Bagdad’s original opening day, in 1927…. Outside the new “Oasis for Entertainment,” hundreds crowded onto Hawthorne Boulevard, which was roped off for the big event. A street dance jumped to a live band as searchlights sliced through the night sky. Portland Mayor George Baker gave a rousing speech heralding the building’s importance to the community. And an orchestra performance, male quartet, Maryln Mills and her famous horse Beverly, a jazz band, a stuffed prop camel and a screening of Laura LaPlante’s Her Big Night (1926) dazzled all who attended. It was truly a glamorous night of nights on Hawthorne Boulevard.
For several generations, “Meet me at the Bagdad!” was the slogan for area residents looking for a convenient escape or to catch a glimpse of stardom. Since acquiring the Bagdad in 1991, the McMenamins aim has been to continue that long tradition as a community gathering spot.
About the Theater
Few expenses were spared to create the eastside Portland movie palace. Capitalized in part by the deep pockets of its parent company, Universal Pictures, the Bagdad was called “a triumph of artistry and craftsmanship.” In 1927, it stood as the city’s largest theater outside the downtown area. Beyond its immense size, guests marveled at the theater’s gurgling fountain and grand colonnade in its foyer, along with its faux-Middle-Eastern decor, right down to the Arabian-styled uniforms worn by the usherettes. Even the conductor selected to lead the Bagdad’s house orchestra was a musician of great prominence, having studied under Tchaikovsky.
At the time of the Bagdad’s opening, Americans’ fixation with movies and Hollywood was already well established. Demonstrating the local craving for celluloid heroes, a cider mill and church were sacrificed in order for the ornate Bagdad to be built on the site. A surge of excitement was generated worldwide in the months following the Bagdad’s opening by the premiere of the first “talkies.” Prior to 1927, theatergoers had enjoyed only silent films, accompanied by an organist or, in the more posh movie palaces like the Bagdad, a live orchestras. And, of course, vaudeville acts were very popular.
So during the Bagdad’s first years, silent movies and vaudeville reigned supreme. In fact, vaudeville remained a key part of the theater programming through the 1940s. Sammy Davis, Jr., performing with the Will Mastin Trio, was one of the many acts to grace its expansive stage.
The Bagdad has also been the scene of some notable movie premiere galas, including Star Trek III, 1776 and A Star is Born. In 1975, actors Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher along with producer Michael Douglas appeared at the Bagdad for the Oregon premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. About fifteen years later, soon after McMenamins took stewardship, the premiere of My Own Private Idaho was screened here. These historic events and many others were depicted by McMenamins artists in a huge, colorful mural that hangs today at our Back Stage Bar, just around the corner.
A New Life with McMenamins
By the mid-1980s, the local and national media was issuing dire predictions about the health of all single-screen movie theaters. McMenamins, though, jumped at the opportunity to take over the Bagdad, bolstered by its success with its first theater-pub, The Mission in Northwest Portland, which opened in 1987.
Over the course of McMenamins’ stewardship, the Bagdad hosted second-run films as well as special events. Through the Powell’s Books Author Series, we welcomed a parade of prominent writers and poets in the main auditorium. Music, too, became a popular addition as the occasional performance graced the main stage. Local and independent film screenings, stand-up comedians and trivia nights further added to the mix, while the beautiful space was often rented out for late-night private events and parties.
Onward and Upward
Today, we venture forth yet again on a new adventure for the Bagdad. As part of our conversion to a first-run-films theater, major upgrades and overall improvements to this grande ol’ dame include a 50% larger screen, 20,000-watt Surround Sound, K Prime digital projector and comfy new rocker seating. This state-of-the-art technical experience offers the latest in accessibility with closed captioning and hearing-impaired options.
The concession menu has also undergone an upgrade, with an expanded tap selection and theater classics like fresh pizza slices, popcorn and candy. Additional menu items will be delivered to the balcony seats, thus improving the flow of foot traffic into the viewing area.
The Bagdad’s much ballyhooed 1927 opening changed the face of the neighborhood and brought the allure of Hollywood to Southeast Portland. Through the years, this landmark property’s role grew as a favorite destination for folks from all over the region. We hope you continue to enjoy the historic, elegant Bagdad Theater as the people of Portland have for nearly ninety years (and counting).
And now, let the show begin….