America’s Little Theaters


My first “arty” movie theater was the Bijou in Eugene, Oregon (officially, Bijou Art Cinemas). I experienced this uncanny space shortly after it opened in 1980—I’d just become a freshman at the University of Oregon. I usually attended the Bijou with new friends, the people I was meeting on campus. We were delighted by the fact that the cinema was housed in an old funeral home. Sitting in that drafty building with Italian Gothic vaulted wood ceilings, one could not help but think of coffins. But that didn’t prevent me from becoming a fan of foreign films. It felt like these movies were hard to come by—like only a lucky few got to view them, because they weren’t being shown all over town. It was particularly satisfying to describe one of these flicks to someone who’d missed it. You’ve just got to see… You knew they’d probably never get the chance.

I continued to covet quirky movies houses after I moved to Seattle, and then later, San Diego. By then such theaters were being called independents. Only larger cities and college towns seemed to offer them, not to mention the independent movies they screened. It was sad to watch some of these theaters eventually close as people began forgoing cinemas in favor of home-viewing.

I must admit, I enjoy binge watching as much as anyone else, but I still manage to make my way to the movies when I’m in the mood to get out of the house. I’ve got my fingers crossed Americans will continue to support their movie theaters, even the larger chains. While the home-viewing experience has improved dramatically, it can’t always match the grandeur of the big screen. Some films are just better up there.

Last winter I discovered The Minor Theatre in Arcata, California. It originally opened in 1914 and claims to be one of the oldest movie theaters in the country. Needless to say, it’s gone through a number of incarnations. It was once even in danger of becoming a parking lot. These days, the Minor Theatre has been retrofitted to offer extra leg room, not to mention little tables for the enhanced concessions they sell in the lobby: microbrews, wine, pizza, wraps, baked goods, and the usual theater fare, including upscale hot dogs. It was an icy winter night—I was happy as a clam.


Now that I’ve begun my retirement on the Oregon Coast, I expect The Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City (not affiliated with the Bijou in Eugene) to be a welcome respite from the rainy days soon to commence. It’s the only theater in miles offering independent films on a regular basis. It is also an old theater—it opened in 1937 as the Lakeside Theatre—that has been retrofitted and brought up-to-date, though it has plenty of arty touches. The women’s bathroom harkens back to an earlier era of coffee houses, while the cozy lobby showcases movie posters, old and new. All tickets for regular features cost $7.00 (most of the time). The concessions are reasonably priced, too.

I will say the audience is often, well… pretty gray. I’ve been noticing this phenomenon in other audiences—at dance concerts, music performances, and plays. This sea of gray is loud in the little theaters of America’s larger cities, not just places where there are a lot of retirees. Younger people seem to have brushed off live worlds in favor of something else. The strange thing is, this country boasts a lot of worthy, if not prestigious, schools that train people to how to act, dance, sing—play music. And there are plenty of people who still seem to want to learn how to perform. If this graying trend continues, maybe these younger artists will have to settle for the stage that appears on in-home screens.