History of the ETPA
By Greg Rueger, ETPA President (2014)
and the History Working Group (Helen Doving, Lee Littlefield & Barbara Rueger)
Ideas about the benefits both of public ownership of the Theatre and of the involvement of an ETPA-like nonprofit community organization were incubating in the minds of various concerned visionaries years before the closure of the Theatre in 2005. This can be observed by going back in time to holiday preparations in December 2000 as reported in the December 5, 2000 issue of The Register-Guard,1 which is the source for this prologue. Even as Paul Quarino had been caring for the organ on his visits to Coos Bay and always had it ready for performance, prior years of neglect had taken their toll on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Mice had nibbled the cotton and wax-covered electrical wires and saltwater had seeped through the cracks in the concrete during winter high tides, occasionally flooding the orchestra pit. The Mighty Wurlitzer had fallen silent.
Although the Egyptian’s Annual Christmas concert organizers planned to carry on with Wilbur Jensen’s Christmas Brass Ensemble and a vocal group from Marshfield High, the organ and Littlefield would not be part of the program.
As a result of these events a letter was sent to theater manager Mike Dill suggesting “that a nonprofit community foundation be formed to assume ownership of the organ and raise money from grants and contributions to repair and maintain it.” The theater manager, who was working for then owner Coming Attractions, saw the possibilities stating that, “The theater could spring to new life with regular organ concerts, old silent films with organ accompaniment and organ-accompanied stage shows using some of the original vaudeville backdrops still hanging backstage …”
Wilbur Jensen, the Coos Bay dentist leading the brass ensemble, said his “dream of dreams would be for the city to acquire the building as a performing arts center.” City Manager Bill Grile said the idea had merit, but balked at the price.
Dean Peden, Portland chairman of the Oregon Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, said “You’ve got to find somebody with a little enthusiasm and a little money, or an ability to raise money to save something like this.”
Photo to the right is of Lee Littlefield and Dr. Wilbur Jensen.
The Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association is Born
Fast forward to late 2005 when, on November 27, the theater showed what could have been its last movie, thus “bringing to a close eight decades of providing a house of entertainment for South Coast residents”.2 The owner at the time, Coming Attractions, had decided to close the Theatre and put the building up for sale.
“The theater is silent and the lights are off, but on the marquee is a sign indicating the historic Egyptian Theatre is for sale. A group from the Little Theatre on the Bay and other concerned people will hold a march Saturday morning before the Christmas performance. The revolutionary fervor is less after the group found out that the city of Coos Bay is equally concerned over the building’s fate” 3 World photo by Lou Sennick.
Martha Houghton, an active and long time member of LTOB and organizer of the above mentioned march said, “People feel real possessive of this theater. It holds a lot of memories for them. The community cares about the theater. We want it to be preserved. I know it sounds silly but I don’t think it is. Not when I have heard the real love coming from them about this theater, the memories, what it means to them.” 4 And so the march took place, as recounted by ETPA Treasurer Susan Watson who participated in it along with other concerned citizens, leaving from the Visitors Center parking lot carrying signs that read ”Save the Egyptian” and ending in front of the theatre where Lee Littlefield was playing to a standing room only crowd in what was thought to be the last performance at the Theatre.5
Out of this volatile combination of events the ETPA was born, and nurtured by Theatre enthusiasts both local and from across state boundaries who believed that the Theatre was too valuable to lose. Wasting no time, the ETPA-to-be first met as “Save the Egyptian” on December 31, 2005 and began formulating plans, which were to prove successful, to do just that. On March 16, 2006, the organization incorporated as the Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association, and David Engholm served as its first President.
David Engholm – First President of the ETPA
For the City’s part, Mayor Joe Benetti is quoted as saying, “The agency (Urban Renewal) and the council are very interested in acquiring the Egyptian and preserving this historic building. We’re in negotiations with Coming Attractions and hopefully we can work out a deal.” 6
During this time, public comment in The World continued both pro and con, with Historian Lionel Youst eloquently defending the economic and cultural value of saving the historic Egyptian Theatre. “… I have a strong feeling for the need to preserve what we can of the character of the city… I admit to excessive nostalgia toward the Egyptian. The first movie I ever saw was there, back in 1939, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves… I was in the audience at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Egyptian in 1975. The only professional theater organist still active in the United States came up from San Francisco with his personal print of Charlie Chaplin’s, The Gold Rush, and he played his original composition for the film. At the end, Stan McSwain stood on the stage and asked if anyone in the audience had attended the opening film at the theater in 1925. At least 25 hands were raised and Stan asked all of them to come up on the stage. He was overwhelmed by the loyalty to the theater shown by so many people”. 7
As a window into this evening, see who is playing for the Pre Movie at the 50th anniversary celebration. ETPA Vice President Lee Littlefield relates that she “was pretty whipped up playing the organ that night… I was just back in Coos Bay after 10 years of being away…it was a big deal as the organ hadn’t been publicly played much.”
Lee Littlefield playing the Wurlitzer at the 50th Anniversary Celebration
Lionel Youst closes his editorial with the ringing statement: “I am here to attest that the working stage machinery, the unique set of painted drops, the operational Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the well preserved Art Deco Egyptian motif, the warm and intimate auditorium with nearly perfect acoustics make it a treasure, the envy of any town, any place.”
In the end, agreements were reached and on April 1, 2006, the Egyptian Theatre was purchased by the City of Coos Bay Urban Renewal Agency, and on July 21, 2006 the Agency signed a management agreement with the non-profit Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association to allow the Association to manage and operate the Theatre on behalf of the City and the community
For the next five years the ETPA successfully managed and operated the Theatre with an all volunteer force and addressed repair and renovation concerns. The following are key dates and accomplishments during this time:
Additionally, there was ongoing extensive interior cleanup, the roof was repaired, there was refurbishment of the concession area, the main floor auditorium, and the mezzanine restrooms with new toilets. The electrical system was reworked and equipment was added to the main projection booth. Lighting fixtures were repaired, replaced and restored, the stage curtain was replaced, and the marquee signage was upgraded. The heating system was replaced with the financial support of the Coquille Tribal Community Fund, flood concerns under the stage were mitigated, and the restoration of the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ was initiated.
These efforts have proved to be very beneficial in addressing years of neglect. As Lee Littlefield explained recently when describing her memories of the eventful day of the 2005 Christmas Concert, “I do not remember that people marched before the concert…I was inside and caught up in the traumas of whether the organ would play, the band was setting up with spotty electrical service, wet orchestra pit… etc. …lots of unpleasantries that we don’t have to deal with anymore.” 9
Another illustrative tale on the benefits of a good heating system concerns ETPA Board Member Paul Quarino who has masterfully kept the Wurlitzer playing and in working order for thirty plus years. As Lee Littlefield writes, “Many years back, the annual Saturday Christmas Concert followed a week of extremely frigid winter temperatures. The interior temperature of the theatre mirrored the outdoor chill. Beginning the day prior to the concert, the theatre was heated, but the earlier spate of cold temperatures was manifested in the organ with squawks, honks, and a multiple of surprise sounds. The concert performers felt sheer panic. What to do? Paul was on his way from Portland with “the fix” … A bucket of steamy hot water for each pipe chamber. The freeze had dried the air — the organ needed to be re-hydrated and moisturized with humidity, an environment more to its liking. The concert came off without a hitch.” 10 (Or a squawk?)
In 2010 the City retained an engineering firm to help the ETPA identify, estimate and prioritize Theatre restoration activities. Unfortunately, the engineers discovered that the back wall of the Theatre had been sinking, and that the Egyptian needed significant structural repairs to ensure that it was safe for our patrons. In early 2011, having just received the engineer’s report, the City decided that the Theatre must be closed until needed structural repairs could be completed.
Over the course of 2011, the City and ETPA studied what needed to be done, and devised a plan to raise the funds required to implement the structural modifications needed. The ETPA reorganized itself to focus on the task at hand and, with the City’s help, retained key experts to assist in the process. These included George Kramer, noted Preservationist and past chair of the Oregon Preservation Commission; Herb Stratford, owner of Historic Theatre Consultants, with a long history of operating historic theatres, and serving on the Board of the League of Historic American Theatres; and Rich Foster, Principal of Cascadia Consulting Partnership, who designed the ETPA’s capital campaign and assisted in developing and implementing our grant funding strategies.
Over the course of the next year and a half the ETPA successfully raised over $1,000,000 which was $250,000 more than absolutely needed to implement the required structural repairs.
In June 2014 the Theatre re-opened with structural issues fully addressed, new roofing and drainage systems, enhanced electrical service to the Theatre, main floor ADA compliant restrooms installed, Broadway facade restoration well underway, and the hire of an experienced Executive Director/Theatre Manager, Kara Long, to take the Egyptian Theatre to the next level … a truly vibrant entertainment complex operated for the benefit of the greater Coos Bay Area community.
1 Bacon,Larry Silent pipes for Christmas concert, The Register-Guard Eugene, Oregon December 5, 2000.
2 Mickelson, Carl and Winchell, Hallie, Staff Writers, Raising awareness about Egyptian’s fate, The World Coos Bay, Oregon December 8, 2005.
3 Mickelson and Winchell.
4 Mickelson and Winchell.
5 Meet Your Board Members featuring Susan Watson, The Egyptian Preservation Association Newsletter, Coos Bay, Oregon April – May 2012.
6 Mickelson and Winchell.
7 Youst, Lionel Nostalgia notwithstanding, there is benefit to preserving community history, Editorial, The World Coos Bay, Oregon February 19, 2006.
8 Littlefield, Lee May 22, 2014.
9 Littlefield, Lee May 22, 2014.
10 Littlefield, Lee Meet Your Board Members featuring Paul Quarino, The Egyptian Preservation Association Newsletter, Coos Bay, Oregon April – May 2012.