If you have ever used a pay phone, a record player, or a jukebox… or wish you had, the Bijou Theater is for you. The vintage marquee overlooks Highway 101, proclaiming its presence in large letters: “BIJOU” and advertising the current Oscar ® nominees available for viewing. The antiseptic modernity of the movie posters presents a stark contrast to the well-worn, vintage setting in which they are to be enjoyed.
I parked across the street, in front of Maxwell’s Restaurant. A few people pass by on the sidewalk. At about 4 o’clock on a stormy grey Tuesday afternoon in February, it’s generally quiet outdoors, anywhere around here.
A gust of wind grabs my coat and moves me closer to the theater entrance, past the ticket window, and, although I’ve never been here before, I step directly into my movie-going past. My eyes adjust to the low light surrounding the bright concessions counter. The calm interior is quite different from the stormy weather outside.
I am in a quiet and comfortably warm popcorn-scented lobby. The décor comes to me in masses of recognition. Here are the standard heavy, dark red velvet curtains and rope dividers. There is some seating provided along the sides of the room. Heavily patterned carpet stretches across the floor. Glass blocks are used in an exterior wall, allowing in filtered light.
An eclectic mix of movie posters is everywhere. A bright mecca of mounded popcorn, neatly stacked sugary treats and fizzy fountain drinks beckon joyfully from the concessions counter. Little lights strung along the edges of the ceiling and around the counter provide a festive air. The curtains at the doorway to the theater seating area are closed now; a matinee is playing.
About 80 years ago, the Bijou was called The Lakeside Theater, in the what was then called Oceanlake. Cue the sci-fi music and our time machine stops in 1937, the year the Bijou was built by the McKevitt family. The people we mingle with are wondering what happened to Amelia Earhart, whose plane has just disappeared. We overhear animated conversations about the marvel of the grand opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, noting that we truly live in a modern age.
It was only the year before that the bridges across the Umpqua, Siuslaw, Alsea and Yaquina Rivers were finally completed. How beautiful they were! What engineering! We were suddenly able to move along the coast by car as we had not been able to do previously. Reedsport, Florence, Waldport, Newport, Lincoln City and Tillamook were linked by highway.
The big blockbuster in the first year of the theater’s grand opening was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Walt Disney’s studio had utilized cutting-edge technology to create the first full-length, technicolor animated English language feature film.
Unlike the process of producing digital animation like that used to produce today’s “Frozen” and “Finding Dory”, “Snow White” was the product of over one and a half million hand-painted frames!
The Bijou is now owned by Keith and Betsy Altomare, who moved to Lincoln City from Los Angeles and purchased the theater in 1996. They purchased it from the second owner, Judy Mace, who had owned the theater since 1981. Her interest and significant efforts brought the theater, which had been shuttered since 1979, back to life for her grateful neighbors.
One of the many upgrades that Judy installed in the theater is the vintage popcorn machine, which continues to be religiously cleaned after each use by the Altomares to keep the taste of the popcorn fresh. It is delicious. I’ve been told that people sometimes come in just for the popcorn, if they don’t have plans to watch the movie that’s playing.
Judy’s plans for retirement gave the Altomares the perfect opportunity to relocate to a place away from the issues of living and working in a big city. They were taken with the romance of the vintage theater and committed to raising their young daughter, Molly in a more stable atmosphere.
Molly is well-remembered by long-time patrons, first for charming them from her stroller and a bit later as a youngster dancing around in front of the movie screen during the ending credits. For years, there was a tip jar at the concession stand that said “Tips Accepted for Molly’s Higher Education”. Molly is now a senior at OSU, so the tips went to good use.
In 2012, the Altomares and the Bijou ran into an unexpected threat stemming from the studios’ turn to digital media from 35mm film. The Bijou’s movie projection system could not accommodate the digital format that the studios were using to produce films. The choice before them was stark: replace all the equipment or don’t show contemporary movies.
The amount of investment required to turn digital was well outside of the amount that the 170-seat neighborhood theater could produce. Here, we see what a community can do for a valued historic resource. A local fundraising effort used crowd-funding to raise more than $51,000 to save the venue.
Now, the theater boasts a new screen as well as digital sound and picture. A tribute to major contributors adorns the wall in the theater and some stars in the sidewalk at the entrance door commemorating the gifts of other donors. The theater gives back, too. Fundraisers have raised assistance for locals in need with excellent results.
Voted Small Business of the Year in 2016, the Bijou works closely with other patrons of the arts, to bring current blockbusters to Lincoln City as well as independent films, classics and extremely affordable, fun matinees featuring well-loved movies chosen for family enjoyment.
Keith and Betsy have a history of supporting the efforts of the Cultural Center, Newport Performing Arts Center, and other local businesses. Christmas brings showings of holiday specials and Halloween brings a hugely popular run of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with Portland’s Clinton Street Theater performers to lead the audience-participation cult feature.
The Bijou has gone through quite a few upgrades and retro-grades through the years. There was a ladies’ powder room upstairs and a baby-cry room that have both been phased out. It’s a sign of the Altomares’ understanding of the importance of their custodianship of the theater’s history that the graffiti wall from the ladies’ room is being preserved.
Another piece of Bijou living history not to be missed is the beautiful playing of the antique theater organ.
The Bijou has the air of another generation, staying in shape and keeping up with current events, but moving a bit more slowly. One filled with a wisdom that can’t be learned quickly and certainly not trying to impress with superficial looks.
The world around the Bijou has changed significantly, but the building still stands and the theater continues to play movies to captivated audiences. The Bijou welcomes you in like an old friend whom you don’t need to impress, who loves you already, as you are.
I love the Coast!