History of the ETPA

By Greg Rueger, ETPA President (2014)
and the History Working Group (Helen Doving, Lee Littlefield & Barbara Rueger)

Prologue

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 Lee & wilbur photowith 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.”

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