Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The History of the Historic Elsinore Theatre

Written by Elaine K. Sanchez

On May 28, 1926, on a former livery stable site, the magnificent Elsinore Theatre first opened its doors to the public. Developed by George Guthrie, an entrepreneur and lover of art, the theatre was designed to resemble the castle in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s greatest drama.

Believing the Salem community deserved and would support a splendid theatre, Guthrie contracted with the Portland architectural firm Lawrence and Holford to create a Tudor Gothic structure that would become the showplace of the Willamette Valley. Ellis F. Lawrence, who later became the founding dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, was the project’s principle architect.

Under the supervision of general contractor Cuyler Van Patten, a meticulous man who sought nothing less than perfection, excavation began in 1925. Skilled laborers and gifted regional artisans were hired to do the basic construction as well as the plasterwork, ironwork, ornamentation and painting. Originally estimated to cost $100,000, it was rumored that Mr. Guthrie was headed toward bankruptcy when the price exceeded $250,000.

When the Elsinore opened its doors, Mr. Guthrie’s dream was realized, and it quickly became recognized as the finest theater between Portland and San Francisco. A capacity crowd attended the opening show, Cecil B. DeMille’s, “The Volga Boatman,” a silent movie accompanied by “Finlandia,” on a mighty Wurlitzer, 900-pipe, 13-rank organ.

For several years audiences enjoyed two weekly performances of “Fanchon & Marco,” a vaudeville circuit that started in Los Angeles and traveled north to Seattle. Many promising new performers, including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Otis Skinner, Clark Gable and the John Phillip Sousa Marine Band also performed on the Elsinore stage.

In 1929 the Elsinore was leased to Fox Theaters, and was converted to accommodate the newest technological advance in entertainment – talking movies. One year later, owner George B. Guthrie leased the theatre to Warner Brothers Theaters, who ran it as a movie house until 1951.

Every Thursday during the 1930’s talented young people would line up at the Elsinore to audition for Zollie’s Mickey Mouse Club Matinee. The best singers, dancers, and musicians would be selected to perform the following Saturday. Created and hosted by teenage impresario Zollie Volchok, the show featured a group of “regulars”, including Salem’s own pianist Donnie Edwards and the talented young trumpeter, Doc Severinsen. Audiences were treated to a 45-minute live stage show, cartoons, movies, and pipe organ music from the mighty Wurlitzer. A few of Salem’s finest citizens still carry their membership cards bearing the Mickey Mouse Club Creed:

“I will be a square shooter in my home, in school, on the playground, wherever I may be. I will be truthful and honorable and strive always to make myself a better and more useful citizen. I will respect my elders and help the aged, the helpless and children smaller than myself. In short, I will be a good American.”

In 1954 the Elsinore was sold to Foreman Brothers, and during the next twenty-five years the forces of time, nature and audience abuse took its toll. The theatre’s ownership changed two more times. Tapestries had to be removed from the reach of vandals. The badly damaged stained glass windows in the upper lobby were boarded up, and in 1962 the magnificent Wurlitzer Organ was dismantled and sold for parts.

By the late 1970’s the theatre once billed as “The Showplace of the Willamette Valley” had lost its appeal even as a second-run, discount movie house. In 1976 the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary passed without notice.

In 1980 plans were being made to demolish the Elsinore and replace it with a parking lot. A group of concerned citizens, appalled at the thought of losing this local, historical treasure, formed the grassroots organization called the “Save the Elsinore Committee.” They worked hard to build support with the public as well as with the city’s political leaders.

The Elsinore was included in a study of multi-purpose center sites, conducted by the City of Salem. The consultants reported that the Elsinore had limited usability, but concluded that it was “worthy of a major preservation effort.” They said, “If at all possible, the Elsinore should be restored to its former grandeur and devoted to community use.”

In 1981 two ballot measures went before the community: one measure provided for the purchase and renovation of the theatre, the other one provided for long term annual operating funds. Both measures were defeated.

Disappointed but not willing to give up, the Save the Elsinore Committee launched a campaign to create awareness and build excitement for the theatre. In 1983 they hosted “Elsinore Week Live,” seven days and nights of free performances that drew over 12,000 people into the theatre. Following that success, the committee negotiated with owner Tom Moyer for the use of the theatre 18 days a year. During the next six years more than 75 different events took place at the Elsinore with attendance exceeding 75,000.

In 1985 another group formed with the goal of building a new 2,000-seat auditorium. The Salem Community Auditorium Committee believed Salem was growing and would support a large venue that would attract major performing arts events to Salem. For the next several years the Save the Elsinore Committee and the Auditorium Committee each worked toward fulfilling their individual goals. They occasionally butted heads as they went about trying to generate support and raise money for their individual priorities.

On the Elsinore’s 60th birthday in 1986 Tom Moyer and the Save the Elsinore Committee hosted a gala to celebrate the initial $130,000 restoration, which was accomplished with the help of theatre supporters and volunteer prison inmates.

A hand-in-the-cement ceremony was conducted before the night’s performance, a repeat presentation of “The Volga Boatman,” the first silent movie shown at the Elsinore. The movie was accompanied on a borrowed organ.

That same year, Clayton Parks, a Salem organ enthusiast approached Moyer with a proposal to install his new organ with its three keyboards, twenty-two ranks and 1,534 pipes. Moyer agreed and the Elsinore came alive with music once again. The Parks family later donated the organ to the theatre, and a $60,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust financed a major renovation and upgrade of the instrument.

In the late 1980’s Tom Moyer decided to sell his theatre chain. ACT III Movie Theaters bought Moyer’s properties, including the Elsinore. The new owners agreed to allow the community limited use of the theatre.

In 1990, after learning that ACT III wanted to sell the property, the Save the Elsinore Committee launched a fundraising drive to purchase it. At the same time, the Auditorium Committee was still trying to generate public and political support for a new, larger performing arts center.

In 1992 Mayor R.G. Andersen-Wyckoff asked the two groups to work together. They agreed to joined forces to create STAGE – Salem Theatre Auditorium Group Enterprise, a nonprofit charity for the performing arts. STAGE’s stated purpose and goal was to purchase, renovate, restore the Elsinore Theatre and build a new, large auditorium.

After a number of rejected grant requests and other disappointing events the committee’s belief in the theatre’s potential finally paid off. Meyer Memorial Trust awarded STAGE a $400,000 grant, which covered the purchase of the theatre and provided $100,000 for remodeling. On July 17, 1993, STAGE, Inc. assumed title of the Elsinore. An executive director was hired and the theatre was closed temporarily for repairs and restoration began. Once the disabilities requirements and city building codes were met the theatre re-opened for rental use. The following year the Elsinore was put on the National Register of Historic Places and the first “season” was offered to the public.

In 1994 STAGE contracted with Aron Faegre, a Portland architect, who designed an ambitious $7.8 million master plan, which included purchasing the Capitol Theater and expanding the capacity of the Elsinore.

The volunteer host/usher organization was created and the Historic Elsinore Theatre became a fully functioning auditorium and performing arts space. However, the theatre was still in need of significant restoration and modernization, and several more years would pass before the time was right for a major fundraising effort.

The new millennium brought major stars to the Elsinore. In February 2000 Gregory Peck presented the last performance of his career on the Historic Elsinore Theatre stage. He said, “I just wanted to say you have to do great things with a theatre like this. I am so impressed . . . It’s quite possibly the outstanding venue on our tour. I am most enthusiastic about the possibilities of this theatre and I hope you will lend your strongest support. . .”

The following year Broadway diva, Bernadette Peters and film star James Earl Jones appeared at the Elsinore, and a performance by world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman brought the theatre international attention. Audiences were thrilled to see such famous stars in Salem, but they were growing restless. They wanted a more comfortable environment. Patience with the aged theatre was wearing thin.

On the Elsinore’s 75th anniversary, sensing that the community was ready to support the theatre and its contribution to the arts, a group of prominent local individuals stepped forward to champion the Return to Grandeur campaign. Using STAGE’s master plan as a guide, the board of directors resolved to keep the theatre operating and fiscally sound, while at the same time rebuilding its infrastructure, repairing its damage, and returning it to its original glory.

Curry Brandaw, a local architectural firm that donates a portion of its business to nonprofit organizations, was just finishing Salem’s Riverfront Carousel and the company was looking for another community project. Architect and project administrator David Holton approached the Elsinore’s board with a proposal for Curry Brandaw to become the general contractor for the Return to Grandeur. Knowing the reputation of both the firm and Holton, and appreciative of the potential to cut costs significantly, the board eagerly agreed.

By February 2002 the scope of work had been determined. It would require three phases, with each phase encompassing four months of work, and it would cost $3.2 million. The theatre would operate as usual fall through spring, but would close each summer for three years.


The work completed during the first summer of renovation was highly visible to the public. The addition of modern restrooms and office spaces made the theatre more comfortable for patrons and employees alike. New paint and a rebuilt marquee gave the exterior a badly needed facelift, and restoration efforts saved the exquisite stained glass windows and lobby murals.

Work Completed Summer 2002

• Basement remodeled
• New restrooms added
• Harcourt Hall, reception and meeting area added
• Offices relocated to street level
• Entry Marquee rebuilt, and 7,000 watts of lights installed
• Architectural woodwork on building fa├žade rebuilt
• Stained glass windows removed, repaired and reinstalled
• Romeo and Juliet mural restored
• Exterior painted
• Lobby refurbished – concession stand relocated, new carpeting installed
• Large, functional stage door installed
• Fire sprinklers installed


The work done during the summer of 2003 focused on the theatre’s infrastructure. Although it wasn’t as glamorous as the previous year’s renovations, the comfort of the audience was improved with the addition of a new heating system that provided for temperature control and air circulation, and the new lighting and sound systems greatly enhanced the enjoyment of the performances.

Work Completed Summer 2003

• Stage curtains replaced
• Stage lighting updated, front of house lighting added
• New sound system installed
• New stage rigging
• Existing grid system upgraded
• New heating and ventilation system installed
• Electrical wiring upgraded doubling the capacity


The third summer of work focused on the restoration and preservation of the auditorium and lobby spaces as well as a complete redesign and rebuild of the dressing rooms. Although the cracking plaster in the auditorium gave the appearance of a crumbling interior, the building was solid. Fortunately, it had not suffered any “structural” updating through the years. The beautiful plasterwork, ironwork and ornamentation were still in place. The primary work involved cleaning, painting, repair and preservation. Once the grime started coming off, the promise of returning the Elsinore to its original grandeur became a reality.

Work Completed Summer 2004

• Auditorium and lobby restored
• Dressing rooms remodeled
• Roof replaced
• New stage floor installed
• New house lighting system installed
• Interior architectural lighting installed

Original ceiling panels, balcony breasts, and proscenium arch panels were designed, engineered and fabricated by Louis Gluck of Seattle. Each little fan on the proscenium arch had to be engineered differently to make a symmetrical pattern fit into an asymmetrical space. Close examination reveals two different curves. The shape of the panels change as the arch comes down the sides. The left-hand side of the arch honors Mr. Guthrie’s family with a shield of Scotland. His family’s crest is located on the seventh panel up from the left. Mrs. Guthrie’s family is similarly recognized with a shield of Norway, and her family’s crest is the seventh panel up from the right.

There are no high-tech solutions to cleaning historic plasterwork. EverGreene crews stood on scaffolding high above the auditorium stage and used over ten gallons of Simple Green and dozens of disposable two-inch, white bristle brushes to remove the decades of accumulated nicotine, dirt and grime from the theatre’s splendid proscenium arch. Using a hose, a common garden sprayer and a drainage system fashioned from towels, rags, and plastic bags they rinsed the artwork and disposed of the filthy water. The cleaning process took weeks. Once it was completed artists restored the decorative paintings and then sealed them with a removable, conservation varnish specifically designed to protect artwork from dirt and deterioration.

During the original construction, a rubberized coating intended to protect the theatre’s extensive plasterwork from water damage was applied over the concrete walls. Unfortunately, the concrete and the rubbery coating were incompatible. The smooth surface could not hold the plaster against the forces of settling and seeping water. Hundreds of cracks and large patches of delaminated plaster had to be repaired or replaced.

EverGreene crews applied Plasterweld, a product that solidifies particles, prevents moisture from leaching through, and provides a rough-textured base for the application of new plaster. Some of the original plasterwork and paintings had been lost completely, including the corner mouldings on the top of the proscenium arch. An EverGreene specialist recreated the mouldings using historical photographs as a guide.

A six-foot hole in the auditorium’s main ceiling had to be repaired and the missing stencil paintings reinstated. Artists traced four different pieces of the original artwork, created and cut new patterns, and then painstakingly reproduced the paintings.

The 1920’s flocked wallpaper located close to the stage was so caked with dirt and dust that the original pattern was indiscernible. Vulcanized rubber sponges, commonly used to remove soot and smoke damage, were delicately brushed over the surface of the fragile paper revealing its ornate beauty once again.

Before cleaning, a hand passing lightly over the theatre’s tapestries would instantly turn black. Originally designed to mimic opera boxes and give the theatre a larger feel, the tapestries were cleaned using a low suction vacuum, then brushed with the same vulcanized rubber sponges used on the wallpaper.

After every inch of the theatre’s interior surfaces had been scrubbed with Simple Green, rinsed with water, and hand wiped with clean, dry rags, they were primed, painted with a base coat and then glazed with a semi-transparent color. The glaze was mixed with kerosene and linseed oil, which increased drying time. Deck staining brushes were used to apply the glaze and create a stippled effect. Rags were then used to smooth and remove portions of the glaze. That process helped define the shape and contours of plaster mouldings.

Over thirty gallons of gold paint and forty pounds of bronzing powder were used to bring the shimmer and glitz back to the theatre.

The lobby, a Gothic hall, thirty feet high, seventy-five feet long and graced on both ends with grand staircases and 24-foot murals, was designed to look like an outdoor courtyard on a cloudy evening. In the mid-1920s atmospheric theatres such as the Elsinore were designed with the intention of transporting the patrons into an entirely different environment. Glass windows or doors were intentionally excluded from the lobby design to prevent intrusion of the outside world into the theatre.

The sweeping stairs and original ironwork were originally created by Henry Jaegler of Salem.


The Historic Elsinore Theatre is a nonprofit organization, and its mission is to:
“Promote, protect and enhance the Elsinore as an historic national landmark and performing arts center.”

Thanks to the persistence of a number of Salem’s dedicated local citizens this theatre has survived time, weather, owner neglect and public apathy. Different groups stepped forward at different times to take on the monumental and sometimes unpopular challenges of saving the theatre, renovating it, funding it and managing it. Although it would be impossible to recognize all of them individually, it is important to thank them collectively for their wisdom, vision, and hard work.

It is also important to thank all of the individuals and organizations that have supported the theatre financially. Their attendance at performances and their generous cash and in-kind donations has helped preserve an important historical structure as well as a vital segment of Salem’s cultural and social past.

And finally, we remember George B. Guthrie who wrote this letter in 1927. It was included in the one-year anniversary commemorative brochure:

“Just one year ago The Elsinore was opened, and on this first anniversary we wish to extend our appreciation of the generous support, both in attendance and voiced encouragement, given us in its operation. The many voluntary expressions of delight in its acoustics, architecture and comfort have in themselves been a rich reward. As birthdays succeed each other we trust that the good people of Salem and its surrounding vicinity shall never lose their warm interest in our little building and its attractions.”
George B. Guthrie

Thank you, Mr. Guthrie!