At first glance, it looks incredibly plain. Nothing about the dusty gray building stands out from the rest of the vibrant downtown area, except perhaps its arching edifices and sheer size. Not to mention the fact that its previous plywood-looking doors had given the slightly off-putting impression of being permanently closed to all casual passerby. For all intents and purposes, the place looks old, decrepit, and dead. If someone had told me just two months ago that the Whiteside Theatre is one of the most popular spots in downtown Corvallis, I’d have scoffed or stared at them in disbelief. Yet here I was, waiting to see The Fifth Element in a movie theater I hadn’t thought to be in existence.
Like I had mentioned, its outside wasn’t attention-grabbing – if it weren’t for the display signs and neon marquee advertising the movies it would be playing, you’d have been at a loss as to what this building was for. You could have scarcely guessed at its rich historical background, much like I had (to be fair, I’m not a local). Right now, the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ rings true, and alarmingly accusatory.
The theatre was built in 1922 by the Whiteside brothers, Samuel and George, with its doors opening on November 9th of the same year. At the time, it was the second grandest movie theater in Oregon, and pioneered the theater industry in Corvallis. Despite the outward shabbiness, the stately theatre had been constructed to emulate the Italian Renaissance style, making it resemble a palace. Its interior had reflected that sentiment: back then, the theatre had been lavishly decorated with colorful rugs, draperies, statues, and many other kinds of elaborate furnishings. In its heyday, it was the epitome of the elegant Art Deco style of the 1920s in all the era’s glitz and glamor. Yet time marches on – the theatre ceased its commercial movie theater operations in 2002, and is now open as a multi-purpose events and entertainment venue. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Whiteside looks like now, especially since the theatre had suffered through two fires, one in 1927 and another in 1936. The interior had been reconstructed and renovated, thanks to the Whiteside Theatre Foundation, but I wondered: did the theatre still live up to its reputed glory?
When I stepped through the doors, I found a cozy little lobby with a small concession stand in the middle. Two staircases on either side wound upstairs, while twin doors flanked the concessions, leading out to the theater. It was redolent in a warm light with a bright red-and-black carpeting – a holdover from the days that it was owned by Regal Cinemas. The walls were a white plaster, with a matching red-and-black ceiling trim that made the lobby look dignified yet almost gothic in feel. It was a cheerful and inviting space, and I could feel myself relax a little here in the middle of such a bright color scheme.
As for the theater itself, it was a modest sized auditorium. There were small columns with faux Corinthian styled capitals supporting the shallow alcove, surrounded by a cream-colored wallpaper with slightly darker geometric designs. Despite the dark lighting and projector screen, I could make out the stage. Though the Whiteside was intended to be a movie palace, it had occasionally hosted live theatrical performances – a history repeated today. The dazzling furnishings of the 1920s were still intact: I could make out thick dark red draperies with gold trim around the stage, and the side walls were just as fancifully adorned. It brought to mind those old-school theater auditoriums, with the theater boxes up and down the sides of the stage. In other words, something like what you would have seen in opera houses. Rich red curtains paired with a trio of rose columns topped with gold, and tiered above them were two gilded panels. The panel closest to the audience was an oval grate, and may have been part of an antiquated air conditioning system or speaker system. The panels closest to the stage were covered in wine red curtains with golden trim, set over champagne drapes. I found the overall effect to be elegantly alluring without being loud or pretentious.
I made my way upstairs, and in between the two bathrooms, was a little room where they served specialty cocktails tailor-made for the feature film. Four drinks were being served, all named after the movie or The Fifth Element characters. Another, smaller set of stairs led up to the balcony seats, with the projector set in the back. Up here, I could see the ceiling much more clearly: a powder blue, with an ornate gold chandelier. Intricate metalwork laced around the glass, and directly above the light fixture, a golden framework set against a matching frieze. If you were to stand directly below it, it would have looked like one of those fanciful depictions of the sun, scrollwork and all. The ceiling trim of the auditorium was cream set with beige octagonal panels, all separated by gold scrollwork. I quickly got the sense that the color gold might be a major color theme of the place and era.
I found a seat, and as I waited, more and more people began to trickle in. Below, one of the managers was playing a round of movie trivia. As the minutes trickled by, I noticed the audience members – I mean, I would have noticed them either way; there was a lot more of them than I had thought, especially given how old this movie is. There was an excitement and anticipation humming in the air alongside the buzz of conversation.
When the lights went out, and the movie started, everyone tuned everything else out, their focus solely on the futuristic world playing out before them. Even as the antics of Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovitch, and Gary Oldman unfolded before them, everyone was completely immersed into the story. I could hear some audience members joke, I could hear the theater erupt into laughter, and I could feel the audience become united by their mutual affection for – if not the film – then for the theatre we had all found ourselves in. It was, to borrow a cliché, heartwarming.
As the credits rolled, and the audience began to rise, I simply watched everyone else. They all had smiles on their faces, and truth be told, I had enjoyed myself – it had been a fun night. And it was an experience that had been elevated by simply being here, in this ornate palace of the Roaring Twenties.
The following day, I had my interview with Jen Waters, the personnel and volunteer manager of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation, the organization that manages and maintains the theatre. A kind, welcoming woman with a lovely scarf and knit handwarmers, we walked up into her office to talk.
During our interview, she gave me valuable insight into the inner workings of the theatre, as well as some of its quirks. For example, I learned about how the auditorium was set up perfectly to project voices, but not so much movie sounds, and that most of the original carpeting and paint were still intact. Not to mention the eternal struggle of getting the popcorn cooked perfectly. But most importantly, she showed me how the Whiteside played such a key role in Corvallis’ greater arts and entertainment community.
The Whiteside Theatre Foundation, Waters informed me, is dedicated to opening the theatre into more of a community space. “It gives people the opportunity to have a larger performance space that they can create in,” she explained, a smile dancing across her face. As such, her organization wants to maintain the theatre’s casual atmosphere while encouraging more live performances to be held in their space. I was surprised yet elated to hear that the OSU Opera would be holding their Spring Performance here in June. Considering the turnout the previous night for an old movie, I was sure that they would be able to fill out all 800 seats.
Yet first and foremost, before even attracting a larger audience, Waters assured me that they wanted to “provide a space that can seat a fair amount of people [that is] malleable to the arts experience someone wants to create.” And, you know what? I believe her. I may not have been around this theatre long, but there is a charm and spirit here that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s old but dignified; there’s an air of majesty when you first walk into the auditorium, a sense of wonder when you look around you. You can feel the weight of its history on you, but it isn’t overwhelming at all. Here, you can unwind and enjoy a movie or a play in a more intimate setting where you can feel the audience’s experiences as clearly as your own.
“It’s always interesting to bring people in the space for the first time,” Waters confided to me, “and have them instantaneously fall in love.”