How the Clinton Street Theater’s new owners are taking it into the future

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Fourteen years ago, when Violet Hex was 11, she told her parents she was going to a friend’s house. Instead, in the bitter cold of December, she turned into a drag behind a southeast Portland dumpster and grabbed The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Clinton Street Theater for the first time. As a “radically, visibly queer gay punk rock kid,” Hex already considered the ’70s cult classic one of his favorite films, but attending Clinton’s long-running live show was vastly different from watching it in a friend’s living room.

“I had never been to a movie theater like this in my life. It was the perfect combination of magic and sleaze,” she recalled. “I felt like I was supposed to be there, but not meant to be there in an inimitable way.”

One of the oldest operating cinemas on the West Coast, Portland’s single-screen Clinton Street Theater has been in operation for over 100 years and presents The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday since 1978. This tradition is the most famous example of what sets the Clinton apart from other repertoire theaters in the city: it complements left-wing movie screenings with things like live music, drag shows , stand-up comedy, and DIY performance projects, making it more of a punk community space and bizarre paradise than, say, Cinema 21. After nearly closing during the pandemic, the Clinton was bought out in April by a collective of fans and former employees for an undisclosed sum, and while its new operators have pledged not to rock the boat too much, they hope to double down. on the kind of programming that could inspire a million more Violet Hexs.

“The Clinton is not just a movie theater. It’s that community garage where if you’ve got an idea and you’re passionate about something, you can go show your stuff, or get your friends to play, or put on that original musical you heard about,” says Aaron Colter, one of the new owners of the theatre. Colter’s ties to space run deep. He and his partner had their first date across the street at the Dots Café. The theater was one of the first places he visited when he arrived in Portland 15 years ago; for a time he lived a few doors away.

In fact, he first made a bid to buy the Clinton with his former Dark Horse Comics colleague Tom Kishel in 2012, but it fell through. Colter went on to work on other projects — a record label, a career in technology — but never lost his interest in directing theater. So when then-owner Lani Jo Leigh sent out an email newsletter in early 2021 hinting at Clinton’s uncertain future, Colter offered to come on board as a volunteer film programmer. in order to keep it afloat.

By then, Violet Hex had been working as a theater projectionist for almost a decade. After this fateful rocky horror screening, she became a Clinton lifer, working a variety of volunteer positions that gave way to a full-time job. She had hosted invite-only midnight screenings Pink flamingos and rock ‘n’ roll high school at the Clinton, started his own drag show there and saw it through the worst of COVID. It had become one of the most important plays of her life, and she was not predisposed to uncritically celebrate whoever took the reins next.

Colter, however, has proven himself. “Him being a cis man, I’m very protective of the space. I think it’s natural to have walls in that sense,” Hex says. and to our community, how invested he was in Clinton’s success, but also in making it a diverse and inclusive space.”

Colter is one of six co-owners, alongside Kishel, musician David Gluck, film programmer Susan Tomorrow and Morgan McDonald and Steven Williams, who manage the budgets. The group runs the theater as a collective, each offering specific expertise and relief to the others (“We always joke that it’s a Voltron situation,” says Colter), while each maintains a day job. By summer’s end, the collective was able to pay a handful of employees—projectionists, dealers—but none of the owners were being paid.

“The first time we met everyone, Tom and I met at Dots and we said, ‘Hey, it’s a really bad idea to lose money, if you’re willing not just to invest money, but also to work for free. Would you like to do that?’ And they said yes,” Colter recalls with a laugh. For the first few months, efforts focused on fundraising for new equipment: a more accurate digital projection system, new locks, smoke detectors, a few electrical repairs.They prepared to soundproof the lobby to keep quiet movies quiet and to aid in a planned increase in live album recordings in the main auditorium.

Now it’s about doubling down on what works without stifling the inherent magic of the place. Violet Hex is the co-producer of a new, maximum resident drag show called Galore; a queer and POC variety show called Blend recently took root; drag race Winner and Portland native Jinkx Monsoon hosted a show at the theater in late spring. For fall, the band has prepared an onslaught of horror shows, including metal freakout Nic Cage mandya variety of festivals and some older classics on 16mm film.

“More events on stage. More music. More performance,” Colter says of his cohort’s future plans. “We joke about being Portland’s anarchist clubhouse – we’ve raised money for abortion funds and prison abolitionist groups, so we’re always going to be a more radical space than I think a lot of people are. other spaces in the city are ready to be. ”

And yes, rocky horror and the Power of Women film festival and a million other Clinton staples will continue, because the more things change, the more they stay—in this case, thankfully—the same.

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