Arts & CultureMusicScene Guide

McDonald Theatre: a movie-script history

On May 7, 1925, Eugene’s newspaper, the Eugene Daily Guard, printed two editions. There was the standard home edition and a second special edition. The special edition was eight pages long, and every article and advertisement in it related to one topic: The small town of Eugene was getting its first major theater venue, “The Lowell Theater.”@@[email protected]@

“Tonight, a big night in the history of Eugene, theater lovers will be welcomed to the new Lowell theater, named in honor of, and dedicated to, the intrepid aviator who first circled the globe in air, Lowell Smith,” a story on the front page said.@@[email protected]@

The opening night featured live music, a comedy film and then the feature presentation, “Madame Sans-Gene,” a 1924 film starring Gloria Swanson.@@

But the excitement around the theater’s opening wasn’t only based on the venue’s artistic and aesthetic merits.

“Amazement will be no uncommon feeling … Then, as the fresh air pours in from all round, driven by the new ventilating apparatus, the program will open,” the paper said.

The ventilating apparatus refers to an early form of air conditioning – a rarity for most buildings at the time. But starting in 1917, when an air conditioner was installed in a movie palace for the first time in Montgomery, Ala., primitive temperature control systems began appearing in movie palaces across the country.@@[email protected]@

“That was the first kind of place people went when they were not able to control their environment. As a building type, they ushered in the new technology,” said Kingston Heath, a University professor of historic preservation with a doctorate in American Studies.@@[email protected]@

Only two days after the venue’s opening, it was renamed in honor of one of its founders, Aaron Harding McDonald.

In 1913, McDonald moved from Portland to Eugene with the intention of starting his own theater business. Within ten years, McDonald was running the Castle Theater Company and simultaneously owned and operated three other Eugene theaters, The Heilig, The Castle and The Rex.

According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination application, in 1924, McDonald formed a real estate investment firm with local businessman Charles J. Schaefers. The name of their business was the McDonald-Schaefers Company, and their biggest venture was the Lowell Theater.

McDonald, however, passed away only days before the grand opening of the theater and only two days after its debut, the theater was renamed in his honor, “The McDonald Theater.”

Over time, three of the four Eugene theaters were demolished or remodeled beyond repair.  The McDonald Theater however, stuck around.@@I’ve followed it very closely, and his spelling of “Theatre vs. Theater” has been correct on every instance according to the PDF for the Historic Places nomination application, the link for which I provided [email protected]

“One reason the building may have survived the extreme alteration and demolition suffered by many of Eugene’s downtown buildings lies in the fact that it remained in the hands of the Schaefers family until 1977,” the National Register of Historic Places nomination report says.

After that, the ownership of the theater began to switch hands every few years.

“Act III bought the McDonald and numerous other theaters in 1989 from Tom Moyer’s Luxury Theatres chain,” The Register-Guard in a May 1995 story said.

According to The Register-Guard, in 1985 the McDonald Theatre Associates purchased the venue and held onto it for a few more years when in 1997, they sold the building for $1.3 million to the Geiger family partnership.

Ultimately though, despite multiple restoration projects over the years, business wasn’t good enough and the McDonald Theatre closed its doors for good in January of 2001. The Register-Guard covered the event, which featured three showings of “Cast Away.”

“Hundreds of moviegoers lined sidewalks around the historic theater building late Thursday for a chance to take in what could well be the 75-year-old movie house’s last picture show,” the story said.@@[email protected]@

But towards the end of the piece, a bit of hope regarding the future of the building surfaced.

“…a handful of investors are in negotiations to reincarnate the space as a community performance venue,” the piece said.

Finally, on July 27, 2001, The Register-Guard ran another story.

“After months of painting, plastering and some minor retrofitting, the McDonald is nearly ready to reopen its doors – this time as an all-ages music venue,” the story said.

Kit Kesey, local resident and nephew of author Ken Kesey, had signed a lease with Geiger and was ready to make the switch to a live music hall. The first band, reggae group Burning Spear, was booked for Sept. 18, 2001, and there were more to follow.

Continuing today, Kesey has continued to manage the venue as part of his family-owned Kesey Productions, which also books and promotes shows at the Cuthbert Amphitheater.

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