a sugar fix, try Voodoo Doughnuts in Old Town
Ore. — Greetings from fast-changing Portland. On your
right, note the dozens of breweries and distilleries, none
of which existed until the other day. On your left, take
care not to provoke the bicyclists, who may control
everything by the day after tomorrow. If you’d like to
feed them, locavore treats and artisan coffee only,
now to today’s postcard picture, just ahead among the
hippies and hipsters of the Eastside’s Hawthorne
neighborhood: the Bagdad Theater & Pub, built in 1927.
Bagdad is not just a longtime landmark on the less-shiny
side of town; it’s also proof of the powers of historic
preservation, neon and beer (not necessarily in that
order). In a city in love with making things and recycling
them, it’s an old postcard with a fresh message scrawled
on the back. Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster
and I recently spent several days exploring it and the
by the way, was a common spelling in the ‘20s. And
somehow, the missing "H" contributes to the
whole electrified-ersatz-Islamic-hallucination effect of
the theater’s exterior. But inside, the Bagdad is about
movies, beer, burgers and pizza. You can eat a meal and
drink beer in the theater, a concept that’s novel in Los
Angeles but old hat here.
month’s schedule, typically eclectic, includes
screenings of "The Great Gatsby" (2013) and
"Repo Man" (1984), a panel discussion on
Portland in the ‘60s and a documentary on elk hunting.
enough elk hunting? Sit at one of the pub’s sidewalk
tables (well, between cloudbursts), round the corner to
shoot pool in the Back Stage Bar or have a smoke at the
cigar bar Greater Trumps. All fall within the Bagdad’s
within a few blocks, you can shop for books at Powell’s
(which opened one shop in 1987, another in 1992), check
out old vinyl at Jackpot Records, wolf down breakfast
treats from the Waffle Window at dinner time or order at
the counter of the merrily chaotic ¿Por Que No? Taqueria.
not, however, try to sleep at the Sapphire Hotel near 50th
Avenue. Maybe it once was a seedy flophouse favored by
sailors and hookers, but it’s now an elegantly dim
restaurant and bar featuring $9 cocktails that threaten to
become novellas. From the menu:
Singer. That woman had the voice of a thousand cigarettes.
I pined for her. Fig bourbon, rhubarb, pomegranate
you may be thinking of "Portlandia," the
4-year-old Web / TV comedy show that deftly sketches the
whole sustainably sourced, beer-soaked, coffee-powered,
homemade, bike-driven scene. Have you seen the one with
the Cultured Caveman, a food stand specializing in paleo-diet
snacks? Or Hopworks, the all-organic eco-brewpub? Or the
street-corner salesman who peddles micro-kites that fit in
your shirt pocket?
you have not. Because those are all real. (And by the way:
From 1861 into the 1880s, Hawthorne Boulevard was known as
Asylum Avenue because its most notable building, now gone,
was Dr. J.C. Hawthorne’s Oregon Hospital for the
let’s get back to the 3700 block of Hawthorne, where the
Bagdad marquee gleams red and green at dusk and an old
vaudeville curtain hangs above the bottles in the Back
got that haunted feeling. You just don’t get that in a
modern building," Rachel Flesher, Bagdad property
manager, said recently.
the theater went up, America was still abuzz over the
discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, and designers
were entranced by all things Arabian, or Islamic or, you
know, sort of like that. Accordingly, the Bagdad featured
a grab bag of Arabian, Moorish and Mediterranean
flourishes, including usherettes in harem garb. For the
opening, somebody brought a live camel.
the Great Depression was brewing, "talkies" were
coming and silent-movie palaces were about to go out of
style. Over the decades, Bagdad owners and managers zigged
and zagged, first booking vaudeville acts, later
sectioning space off to make a duplex, then a triplex.
then in 1991, brothers and pub moguls Mike and Brian
McMenamin bought and renovated the theater, returning it
to a single-screen configuration. The key innovation,
borrowed from another McMenamin project a few years
before, was the view ‘n’ brew angle.
nothing like going to watch a movie with a pint of
Hammerhead," Flesher likes to say.
history-loving, hippie-friendly McMenamin empire has grown
to more than 50 pubs, breweries and hotels in Oregon and
Washington, a remarkable story — but you know what
familiarity breeds. With the many McMenamin successes has
come occasional local sniping about bland fare and
seemingly stoned staffers. ("McMinimize your
expectations," a sour commenter once wrote on
true that the Bagdad’s barbecue chicken pizza wasn’t
my favorite meal in Portland, but it had a nice smoky
taste, and the Terminator Stout was on the money. Our
waitress was not only sober and pleasant but also miffed
by the number of able-bodied young beggars on the
a change is coming. In late September or early October,
Flesher said, the Bagdad will close for one to two weeks
for installation of new seats, digital projection and
sound systems, a new screen and perhaps a tweak to the
menu. The new Bagdad, Flesher said, will focus more on
can imagine that this mainstream move might trouble people
with "Keep Portland Weird" bumper stickers on
their kid-sized bicycles, maybe even inspiring a "Portlandia"
episode. I’m reserving judgment and clinging to the best
moment of this trip, which the Bagdad helped make
was night. I was standing across the street from the
theater at Powell’s. Tyson Birnbaum, the bookshop’s
assistant manager, was at the counter, about to compare
his Portland experience to a Ray Bradbury short story,
"All Summer in a Day," about a planet that gets
two hours of sunshine every seven years. Just outside the
window, a sidewalk fiddle player launched into an
improvisation for an aspiring young author who wore a
black mask and wielded a VW hubcap shield.
Boster stepped up to photograph them. For a moment, the
three of them were joined in a circle dance of creation,
affectation and documentation, all backlighted by those
red and green Bagdad lights.
I thought. "Now, I’m in Portland."
THE BIRTH, REBIRTH OF THE BAGDAD
Portland, Ore.’s Hawthorne corridor is transformed by
the opening of the Bagdad Theater. Bankrolled in part by
Universal Pictures, it’s a 1,500-seat "oasis for
entertainment," with one enormous electric BAGDAD
sign hanging over the street and a second jutting from the
new manager turns the theater toward vaudeville acts. The
Bagdad sign over the street has come down and a new
marquee is wrapped around the front of the building. As
the theater’s vaudeville era winds down in 1948, one of
its final acts is the Will Mastin Trio, including a young
singer-dancer named Sammy Davis Jr.
decades of decline, the Bagdad is split into a two-screen
operation by a new owner. Eventually, there will be three
screens: one in the former balcony, one in the former
backstage area and one in the main space. The pipe organ
has been gone since the 1950s.
Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher join producer Michael
Douglas at the Bagdad for the Oregon premiere of "One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," which was shot at the
Oregon State Hospital in Salem.
king Russ Meyer screens the local premiere of
"Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" at the
blocks west of the Bagdad at 1629 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.,
fledgling entrepreneurs Mike and Brian McMenamin open
their first pub, the Barley Mill. Two years later comes
their first brewpub, Hillsdale Brewery & Public House
in southwestern Portland.
Bagdad sign over the roof is gone, and the orchestra pit
is covered. Yet so much of the old landmark remains that
the theater is added to the National Register of Historic
McMenamin brothers buy the property, renovate it, return
it to one big screen with seats for 590 and rename it the
Bagdad Theater & Pub. Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van
Sant holds a screening of "My Own Private
Idaho." The theater also starts hosting authors’
readings and music performances.
Bagdad’s Back Stage Bar opens, making use of former
behind-the-screen storage space, with a ceiling about
seven stories high. A series of connected rooms includes
space for several pool tables.
banking on brew ‘n’ view customers, the Bagdad lays
plans for digital projection, new seats and first-run