Egyptian Theatre History
By: Helen Doving, ETPA Director and Theatre Historian
Greg Rueger, ETPA President (2014)
The Egyptian Theatre, built in 1925, is located downtown at 229 South Broadway on the main street of the City of Coos Bay. Coos Bay is the largest city on the Oregon coast and the largest deep water port between San Francisco and Seattle. The combined population of the area is currently about 65,000.
Due to the Theatre’s historical significance, and to the commitment of Helen Doving to historical research, the Egyptian Theatre was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on May 24, 2010.
Helen’s research into Theatre history for the National Registry designation is the basis for much of what follows.
Originally constructed in 1922 as the Motor Inn Garage and Service Station due to building restrictions in place after World War I, the building was transformed into a movie palace after the easing of federal building restrictions. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and excavations of the Great Hall of Karnak created a public sensation and inspired American movie palaces to move away from the Old World Renaissance and Baroque styles that previously dominated. The Egyptian Revival style was one of the more exotic products of the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth century romantic turn of mind. Examples of it are found in widespread locations, and it seemed most appropriately applied to building projects associated with eternity and the afterlife, such as churches, prisons, or cemeteries. Egyptian Revival’s potential for exotic, mysterious theatricality lent itself well to movie palace design of the 1920’s.
Stepping into the foyer of the Egyptian Theatre brings a visitor into a world of hieroglyphics and antique Egyptianesque characters. Two eight foot tall bronze pharaoh statues seated on thrones guard the left and right sides of the lobby. Over the rear ceiling of the auditorium, which originally had seating for eight-hundred patrons, are six drum-shaped lights featuring papyrus decorated with winged scarabs and encased in wrought iron with snake heads rearing upright on the sides. The organ lofts are disguised by the likeness of kneeling servants on either side of huge lyres against a background of lacy open work, similar to an actual photograph picturing a doorway to King Tutankhamen’s tomb with two guardian statues flanking the opening. Above the organ screens a painted frieze displays winged scarabs holding sun discs. A funeral barge flanking the sun discs features animal headed deities. At the center front of the auditorium, the original Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra organ installation is intact and in regular use. Above the stage, the proscenium arch features a replica of an ancient Egyptian temple with a winged Horus disc. On each side of the proscenium, giant columns flank the stage, each decorated with bands of hieroglyphics, lotus, royally garbed striding figures, papyrus and geometrical patterns.
Carl F. Berg,, representative of the B.F. Shearer Company, was known as an artist well versed in Egyptian decor with a wide philosophical background. In addition to the extensive interior decor, there is a collection of six theatrical scenic backdrops housed in the theatre designed by the Van Wie Scenery Company of Portland.
After almost 90 years, the Egyptian Theatre remains the largest movie house of its kind on the Oregon Coast. Amazingly, the Theatre remains much as it did in 1925. Entering the Egyptian Theatre is like taking a step back in time.
In the heyday of the Egyptian Revival style there were many such theaters to be found across the United States. Now there are only two remaining on the West Coast: Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and Coos Bay’s Egyptian. Grauman’s has undergone numerous renovations, while the Egyptian in Coos Bay remains largely intact. In addition, the Egyptian Theatre’s operational Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra organ is the only theater organ in the state of Oregon that is still in use at the theater where it was originally installed.
In 2013, our historic preservationist George Kramer had this to say about the Theatre: “Nobody on the West Coast, nobody but Coos Bay has a virtually unchanged example of an Egyptian theater, built in the glory days of the form . . . and protected all these years.”
During early operations and especially during World War II, first-run movies and travelogues transported patrons around the world, and newsreels kept people informed on news events within days. People “dressed up” to attend movies at the Egyptian Theatre, leaving the mundane day-to-day world for an evening of entertainment far beyond the rural environs of Coos Bay. The opulent enchantment of the Egyptian Revival decor, the luxurious carpeting, velvet drapes, hand-carved chairs, tables, and mirrors, wrought iron and parchment light fixtures, all these splendid accouterments lent their magic to the ambience of the surroundings.
In modern times, the Egyptian Theatre not only occupies a significant niche in the history of the development of Coos Bay’s business and cultural growth, it continues to function as a viable segment of the community and is still the neighborhood landmark by which other businesses advertise their location.
Over the years the lives of the residents of Coos Bay and the Theatre have intertwined. First dates, youthful escapades, experiences of awe and wonder, weddings, photos on the pharaoh’s lap, memories of all sorts are woven into the fabric of the place.
As we talked, Toni sat on the arm of the King Tut bench. She stroked the lion-head
that formed the armrest. ‘When I was very little I used to feed this guy popcorn and
talk to him.’
Beckham, Dow Encore: A History of Theaters and Theatre on Oregon’s Southwestern Coast page 54. Interview with Toni McSwain by Robin Lee in the North Bend News in 1985.
The Egyptian has evolved into an authentic, unique and cherished home which provides a positive self image and common heritage for the community. This quality has added an invisible patina over time to the fabulous decor of the Egyptian Theatre.
When Harry C. Noble, whose ancestors settled in Empire in 1853, and H.J. Clark contracted with John Granstrom Construction Company to design and erect the cavernous, concrete and beam Motor Inn Garage and Service Station in 1922, plans were already in place to convert the building eventually into a movie palace when government “essential use” restrictions on building materials after World War I were eased.
Although its original use as a garage before the theatre’s grand opening in 1925 is well known, you might be surprised to learn that behind that fancy facade, there are still a couple of secrets.
When the horrendous July 23, 1922 fire broke out on Front Street, it consumed the Marshfield City Hall, numerous downtown businesses, and several residences, all located along the waterfront.
At their August meeting, the City Council passed an ordinance to sign a lease with H. Conje Noble (Harry C.) to house the fire department and the police department in his brand new highway garage. The lease was for one year, renewable for one year, at a cost of $100 per month. The fire apparatus occupied one side of the garage with a guaranteed unobstructed way to get out of one of the Broadway exits. The chief’s office and firemen facilities were at the rear of the building. A 12’ by 14’ addition was erected on the northwest corner of the structure to accommodate Police Chief Jack Carter’s local inmates. It was constructed of concrete blocks and 2’ x 4’ timbers, with all plumbing and fixtures furnished by the city. Windows were barred, with adequate ventilation a prerequisite. All access to the jail was by way of the alley not through the garage.
Fortunately, the temporary occupants were able to move to quarters in the new city hall in plenty of time for the planned transformation of the garage into the fabulous new Egyptian Theatre on the Oregon Coast and its grand opening in November, 1925.
After the restrictions were lifted in 1925, the Coos Bay Amusement Company, comprised of Robert Marsden Jr., John C. Noble (Harry’s son), and Denny Hull, hired Lee Arden Thomas to convert the garage into an Egyptian style movie palace. Thomas was educated at Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University, Cornell and Columbia University, and was certified by the Oregon State Board of Architect Examiners in 1919. Thomas’s career flourished in the 1920’s with designs in Portland for the Bagdad and Oriental theaters, and the classic Memorial Union building at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
The Coos Bay Amusement Company invested $200,000 for the construction of the Egyptian Theatre. Interior decoration of the theater was provided by B. F. Shearer & Company of Seattle, a firm that specialized in theater decoration. Carl Berg, an expert in Egyptian design was in charge of decorations, furnishings, and artwork. The Van Wie Scenery Company of Portland designed the curtains and six sets of hand painted drops, still suspended today in the fly-loft above the stage. Original seating was provided by the Wakefield Company of Chicago. One of the most notable features of the Egyptian Theatre was the Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra organ that sits intact and still operable as originally installed by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company for $32,000 at the front of the auditorium.
The investors’ recognition of the need for a quality entertainment facility paid off with the theatre’s opening on November 19, 1925.
When the Egyptian opened, a dinner was held on stage for local luminaries and representatives from many major Hollywood studios. The elegance of the new movie palace compared favorably with the best in Oregon, including the Bagdad, Aladdin, Hollywood, and Paramount theaters in Portland. The Egyptian Theatre’s opening night featured Graustark, from the novel by George Barr McCutcheon, and starred Norma Talmadge and Eugene O’Brien. Pipe organ accompaniment on the theatre’s new Wurlitzer was furnished by Rex Stratton. The theater could seat 1,274; the two day opening events attracted 2,250 patrons.
By 1928, talking pictures came upon the scene, and Robert Marsden ordered the installation of Movietone and Vitaphone equipment for the theatre. George M. Cohan’s Home Towners, starring Richard Bennett and Doris Kenyon, introduced “talkies” to local patrons on March 6, 1929, followed by the Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Each presentation at the theater included a newsreel, a comedy, and filmed vaudeville acts.
Between 1925 and 1949, the Egyptian Theatre was the premier entertainment center for Oregon’s south coast. First run movies, under contracts with First National, Paramount, Universal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, and United Artists opened at the same time as in the movie palaces in Portland, and were shown twice an evening on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A Sunday matinee, with two evening shows on Sunday and Monday night, featured late movies from lesser studios, such as Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes movies and comedies. During the Depression years, there was even a “bank night,” a cash lottery held at the theatre for patrons, on Tuesday or Wednesday to lure customers. As the economy improved and movie attendance grew, ticket prices rose from ten cents and thirty-five cents to fifteen and fifty cents. Friday and Saturday night movie patrons for the late show regularly filled the lobby prior to the end of the early movie. There was no concession stand to intrude upon the fantasyland created by Thomas and Berg in the Egyptianesque lobby, guarded by the two huge pharaoh statues at the side of each staircase. It was a pleasant spot for residents to see and be seen between movies. Although another movie theater, the Noble Theatre, was constructed in the 1920’s in Coos Bay, that theater was about half the size of the Egyptian and did not boast the atmosphere of a movie palace.
Robert Marsden and his wife were in attendance at the theatre every night. Robert’s sister-in-law ran the box office, while Robert received and deposited tickets at the entry repository and his wife tended the lobby and usherettes. Paddy McDuffee was in charge of the projection department. Following the movie, nearby soda fountains and restaurants enjoyed the added business provided by movie-goers’ patronage for an after-the-show snack or dinner.
Wherein: The concession stand, a new marquee and the mini theaters are added, and the columns are moved.
In 1949, Coos Bay Amusement Company sold the theatre to Jones Enterprises of California. The Stan McSwain family from Oklahoma assumed operation and management of the theatre and began to make some alterations, including remodeling the foyer with the addition of a concession stand and replacing the marquee. The McSwains took care to integrate all the changes sympathetically to preserve the Egyptian decor. They also ran an aggressive promotion program advertising their movies, along with numerous give-aways and prize winning schemes to attract patrons. Stan was a real showman. He used to drive around town in a car painted with popcorn kernels and is quoted as often saying “Just call me Kernel (colonel), I’m the popcorn king!”
In 1960 the McSwain’s became owners of the Theatre. It was during their tenure that Cinemascope came into being. To accommodate the large screen, Stan McSwain had the two massive Egyptian columns flanking the stage moved out to rest on huge plinths, retaining the integrity of the proscenium decor and enabling the showing of wide-screen movies.
By this time, television and two new drive-in motion picture screens were competing with the Egyptian Theatre for customers. The drive-ins appealed to the younger crowd as well as to returning servicemen, many with new families, who enjoyed the convenience offered by drive-in facilities. In 1976, due to lack of attendance, the McSwains altered the balcony and projection room by constructing small “twin” theaters at each side of the balcony to permit the showing of three separate films at once. This change was accomplished with little effect upon the main auditorium.
Beginning in 1982, Theatre ownership changed hands several times. Though some improvements were made such as new seating, the building suffered from a lack of maintenance, including roof leaks and high water, although there was little damage to the decor. After construction of a movie multiplex in a nearby community in 2005, the then owner of the Egyptian, Coming Attractions, removed their audio and projection equipment and, in November 2005, closed the Theatre and put the building up for sale.
The City of Coos Bay Urban Renewal Agency purchased the historic building on April 1, 2006, and on July 21 of that year contracted with the all volunteer 501c(3) nonprofit Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association (ETPA) to manage the facility showing classic, art, and educational movies, hosting concerts, fundraisers, meetings, special events, community celebrations, and free offerings, including the annual free Christmas concert that has been offered since the 1970’s. In addition, the ETPA cleaned the whole building, erected a platform to protect the Wurlitzer organ from dampness, installed new projection and sound equipment, a new heating system, repaired the roof, rewired, repainted, and removed the mini-theaters from the balcony, opening it up for public use.
Then, in 2010 the City retained an engineering firm to help 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 our 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.
The specter of losing the Theatre forever illuminated just how closely the lives of Coos Bay Area residents and the Egyptian Theatre have become interwoven through the decades. Over and over again during the Theatre’s closure, residents told stories of experiences they had had at the Egyptian. It became clear that the Theatre is a cherished home that the citizenry, through their tremendous support, has shown they are not willing to lose. It is a beautiful, mysterious, unique and authentic home which, because of you, will continue providing a shared heritage and validating the positive self-image of this area for many years to come.