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Oriental Theatre - 3/13 Wurlitzer, Style 235 "Special"
Portland, Oregon
S.E. Grand & Morrison Street
Organ installation timeframe: 1927- 1969
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Oriental Theatre interior. Wurlitzer console is visible in orchestra pit.
This "East Indian" playhouse was designed by architects Thomas and Mercier. The magnificent plaster work was designed by Adrian Voisin. The theatre opened on December 31, 1927 and seated 2,038. Opening organist was Glenn Shelley.
View a 10 minute video about the Oriental Theatre by Matias Bombal:
Before The Dark: Portland's Oriental Theatre

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Oriental Theatre entrance facade, c.1941
Outstanding features of the structure were the huge dome in the auditorium, the intricate plaster detail everywhere in the building and the children's nursery in the basement under the lobby.
Historical facts and images from THEATRE ORGAN Nov-Dec 1995.
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Photo by Dennis Hedberg, courtesy Ann Cauley 2004
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Lobby stairs
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The theatre was an interesting essay in exotic Hindu style, inspired by the India Temple of Angkor Vat. The interior sported life-size models of Indian elephants and other bizarre statuary.
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Ornate decoration
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Elaborate proscenium
Click for a larger version of this image (39K) The Oriental Wurlitzer was opus #1710, a Style 235 "Special." The original installation was supervised by Wurlitzer employee Harry Carruthers. It was a unique installation in that all of the speaking voices of the organ were in two adjacent chambers which spoke via a tone chute through the front part of the ceiling dome. The piano was in the right end of the orchestra pit. The console left the factory with a plain ivory finish; the unique textured plaster was applied in Portland.
The "Special" designation was due to the Krumet replacing the standard Kinura, and an added Voix Celeste and English Horn.
Dennis Hedberg performed extensive work on the instrument in the 1960's, raising pressures on all ranks and revoicing almost every pipe. His goal was to counteract problems created by the tone chute installation. Stop list modifications were also made including additional Tibia Mutations and couplers. A second blower was added and the console key contacts were adjusted to help speed the action to overcome the considerable time delay between the chambers and console. Click for a larger version of this image (23K)
Dennis Hedberg at the Oriental, c.1969
Revised stoplist information and chamber layout
In 1967, Dennis Hedberg invited George Wright to give two concerts at the Oriental Theatre. Read reviews of the two concerts: May 21 and November 4.  
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George was invited back in November 1969. In addition to concert numbers, he also accompanied a silent movie.
The City of Portland operated the theatre for several months in 1967 and 1968 while the Civic Auditorium was being remodeled. In May 1968, the Oriental returned to operation as a first run movie house.
Unfortunately, the theatre was never really viable as a movie house and it was eventually torn down to make way for a parking lot. An auction was held on February 17, 1970 to dispose of all the contents (light fixtures, etc). The theatre was photographed for inclusion in the Library of Congress list of America's most interesting buildings.
Dennis Hedberg and partners removed the organ in late 1969. It formed the basis of the Portland Organ Grinder restaurant Wurlitzer. The restaurant is now closed and the instrument was broken up for parts.
The original Oriental Theatre console later controlled the Wurlitzer at Uncle Milt's Pizza Co. in Vancouver, Washington.

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Oriental Theatre, c.1930

Excerpts of Oriental Theatre reminiscences from Jonas Nordwall and Dennis Hedberg as posted to the theatreorgans-l Internet mailing list in September, 2013:
From: Jonas Nordwall, September 2013
I first saw the Oriental Theatre in 1961 attending a Richard Ellsasser concert promoting Conn Organs. I was playing at county fairs for Don Rife, the local Conn dealer and also was dating his daughter. Dick was not allowed by contract to play the Wurlitzer or any pipe organ in public where he was playing a Conn promo, but had a ball playing it in private. I met Dennis Hedberg that day and asked him to let me try the organ the following Saturday morning. That Wurlitzer was the first theatre organ I played. It was a tough organ to play as the chambers were 60 feet above your head, speaking through a tone chute into the dome some 20 feet behind you. Even George found it to be a challenge.
During my college days, I frequently played Friday and Saturday evening intermissions there and at the Paramount (sometimes both on the same evening). I was unpaid which irritated the musician's union, but it was great practice. Looking back I was very fortunate to have access to the Oriental, Paramount, Bill Blunk's 5/24 Marr and Colton and the Howard Vollum (Tektronix) Estate 4/49 Wurlitzer (now in the Melbourne Regent Theatre) as practice instruments. Enough about that.
The Oriental Theatre had a most interesting history. It was isolated from all the other theatre rows, built on the East side (downtown is on the West side) almost in the produce distribution part of Portland. It was built at what was to be the intersection of Sandy Blvd and Foster Rd. Those two streets were east side diagonals originally designed to rapidly move car traffic into downtown across the Morrison Bridge. About the time the theatre was being built the city managers changed their minds, terminating Foster 50 blocks to the East and Sandy four blocks northeast of the theatre.
The theatre owner and managers did not spend a lot of money on PR. Many years ago I looked up the ads one month in advance of the opening for both the Oriental and the Paramount (Portland) theatres. The Paramount opened three months after the Oriental. The Oriental ads and articles were very small and limited compared to the Paramount which had the Publix PR machine behind it. The poor theatre was really a white elephant always playing second or third fiddle to the downtown houses. For a while it was leased by a local theatrical group presenting Gilbert and Sullivan productions. The City of Portland leased it from 1966 - 1968 as a substitute auditorium while the Civic Auditorium (now Keller Auditorium) was rebuilt.
Following the city's occupancy, Dennis Hedberg and the late Bill Peterson operated the theatre screening 2nd run films. The theatre, now owned by Bill Roberts of the local Roberts Bros. department store fame, seemed more valuable as a parking lot for the adjacent office building. Rodgers Jenkins, the cofounder of the Rodgers Organ Company and my part time boss, pleaded with Howard Vollum (the original financier behind Rodgers) to purchase the theatre, but that was not to be. A few years ago Rodg told me he was still irritated that Howard had not acquired the building to save it. It was a real architectural treasure with great acoustics. Today it would be a thriving performing arts center. But then, there would have not been the Organ Grinder.
There were several independent organ and ATOS functions in the theatre during the 60s. These included late evening concerts by Andy Crow ala the GW San Francisco Fox events, the ATOS '64 Regional and '66 national conventions, some Gaylord Carter "Flickerfingers" and three George Wright concerts. My first LP was recorded in November of 1969 shortly before the theatre was torn down. FYI, the property was never redeveloped and it still is a parking lot.
The Oriental's orchestra conductor, Joe Sorodka and his wife Mildred were good friends of my mother. Joe had been a music director at the Broadway, Oriental and later the Paramount theatres within a 10 year period. He later had orchestras in night clubs. In the 30s he was also the Principal Violist with the part time Portland Symphony and eventually worked for the bureau of land management with his wife. He had 5 electronic organs in his home and moved all of them to his modified retirement apartment in the 70s. He was a remarkable musician and a great gentleman.
Dennis knew Glenn Shelley very well, much better than I did. Glenn was the reigning Portland theatre organ monarch for decades. Once in awhile Glenn would come to the Organ Grinder in the morning to play for his amusement. He was in his 80s then. He originally was not in favor of Dennis increasing the instrument's pressures in the theatre, but really liked the Organ Grinder. He told Dennis that he wished the original organ was the size of the Grinder as it would have really been a stunner in the Oriental's acoustics. (The Oriental organ was the nucleus of the Portland Organ Grinder).
Glenn was not the most interesting pop player but was probably the best picture organist I ever heard. His musical improv skills were amazing akin to the French Romantic school. He was a good buddy of Oliver Wallace and the two of them were responsible for many of the little custom Wurlitzers in the Pacific Northwest. They ordered Krumets instead of Kinuras and were big on multiple string celestes. The Egyptian in Coos Bay was another experiment where they exchanged the Clarinet for a Quintadena. The Oaks Park rink organ (former Broadway Theatre 4/18 Wurlitzer) was a modified 260 with a Solo String and Solo String celeste, also specified by Wallace. Its twin was the Seattle 5th Avenue which was moved to Redwood City Pizza and Pipes in the late 60s.
Even though the Oriental organ was labeled a 235 Special it was very different than other modified 235s. It had a Post Horn and Krumet instead of a Brass Trumpet and Kinura plus a Salicional and Voix Celeste instead of the usual Horn Diapason/Salicional combination. The upright piano was in the right orchestra pit. It was somewhat similar to the original Salem Elsinore Theartre Wurlitzer, another customized organ. The only thing it did not have that the Elsinore had was a 16' Tibia. There was no allocated chamber space and probably the theatre owners did not want to spend the additional money.
Joe told me that he and Glenn went to Grauman's Chinese Theater for ideas about the organ's design and decided that the chambers needed to be placed side by side in the dome rather than separated on the proscenium sides as was most common. The result was a much better ensemble. The Elsinore in Salem was also installed in the same way.
FYI, The other two outstanding Portland organs were the Broadway 4/18 Wurlitzer and the Liberty 4/33 Wurlitzer as they spoke directly into the auditorium without grills or thick curtain impairment. In later years Dennis pulled the curtains off the Paramount's chamber grills and that was possibly the best original Publix sound along with the Chicago Oriental. The late Bob Balfour told me that the Portland Publix had similar acoustic results as the Manhattan Paramount. The Portland Wurlitzers had more refined tonal finishing since Harry Carruthers, Joseph's son had moved to Portland in the 20s and was a contract installer. Some earlier organs were installed and well finished by Louis Maas.
When I was at the University of Portland, Joe donated the entire Oriental music library to the school in 1968. He had some issues with the president and music school dean over the value of the library and took it back. That was fortunate as the music school (old WWII Barracks from the Swan Island Base) burned to the ground about a month following the removal. The library was given to Musicians Local #99 but probably was tossed out some years ago.

From: Dennis Hedberg, September 2013
Jonas' recollections are mostly spot on but there are a couple things I want to clear up in the name of accuracy.
Like Jonas I, too, had forgotten about Before The Dark. I always thought it was dumb of the film's producers to spend so much footage showing the theatre's nursery and not doing any on camera interviews with Glen Shelley or the old SOB stagehand. Just voice overs.
Here is where Jonas' account is not quite accurate. When the City of Portland exited the Oriental after two years of using it as a temporary public auditorium, the family owner/operators of a regional theatre chain quickly capitalized on the theatre's new popularity and began showing second and some first run films. Having lurked around the Oriental for several years when it was closed and vacant I knew every nook and cranny of the place. The new leasees were appreciative of the assistance I provided and they were sympathetic to the organ. This is where I started playing the organ on Friday and/or Saturday night intermissions. The big problem was that the owners of this regional theatre chain were non-union. The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, and the Musician's union were furious that they lost their foothold in the Oriental.
I was already on their shit list because I was playing some intermissions at the Paramount at the same time and knew the ins and outs of the Paramount as well as the Oriental from projectionist, to stage rigging and lighting, to building engineer, never minding the Wurlitzers. For a short time Jonas would play intermission at either the Paramount or Oriental and I would play the other. That arrangement didn't last very long because it became obvious to everyone who the better organist was so I bowed out leaving it all up to Jonas. At least I can look back and say I had the opportunity to experience of playing to the movie going public while rising into a dazzling white carbon arc spotlight in Portland's two largest and most prominent theatres. How many ATOS people today can make that claim? Both theatres received phone calls asking at what time was the organ going to be played on Friday and Saturday nights.
I don't remember how long it was but when the current lease expired the company operating the Oriental moved on. A theatre operator from Hermiston, Oregon with both an indoor and drive-in theatre and with a long time desire to operate a theatre in the Portland market picked up the lease on the Oriental. He hired Bill Peterson and me to manage it for him. We were the last managers of the Oriental and remained so until it closed permanently.
Feel free to repost this to theatreorgans-l if you wish.
Best regards,

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