COOS BAY - It was the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 that kicked off the nationwide craze for all things Egyptian. But the fad died out a long time ago, leaving behind only a few scattered relics. Coos Bay's Egyptian Theatre is one of them.
The theater shut its doors for good last month, a victim of the age of the multiplex. The Egyptian is an anachronism in a moviegoing era dominated by digital sound in fancy new theaters or high-definition televisions in the comforts of home. The 80-year-old theater with its four-keyboard Wurlitzer organ sits vacant in downtown Coos Bay; "for sale" signs have replaced the movie posters.
But there is new hope for this old venue. Earlier this month, Coos Bay's urban renewal agency offered the Ashland-based company that owns the Egyptian $400,000 to buy the place, and a group of nostalgic citizens quickly banded together in support, promising a spirited fundraising drive to get the Egyptian reopened, even if it never plays another feature film.
It may be the theater's only chance at survival. Its owner, Coming Attractions, shut the Egyptian down because the company expanded its theater at North Bend's Pony Village Mall from four screens to 11. Even before that, the company had stopped showing new movies at the Egyptian, causing attendance to plummet.
Company President Larry McClellan refuses to discuss the matter - "I'm busy running a corporation," he barked in response to a recent telephone call from The Register-Guard - but it's clear, say city officials and the residents who are fighting to save the Egyptian, that this town isn't considered big enough for two movie theaters.
"When they went to 11 screens at Pony Village, they didn't need three at the Egyptian anymore," said Michael Tribble, a member of the Save the Egyptian committee. "But when they were showing first-run movies, it seemed to be doing quite well. Most people will tell you the Egyptian is a favorite place for them to go. We're living with a theater that's one of the last of its kind."
The Egyptian's creator was a descendent of one of the area's first settlers. Charles Noble spent $200,000 - no small sum in 1920s dollars - to convert his Motor Inn, an enormous service station and garage, into a theater.
Designer Lee Arden Thomas chose an Egyptian theme, decorating the interior with piers adorned with papyrus blossoms and ceiling lights in wrought-iron frames with hooded cobras, stairways with 8-foot-tall pharaohs and organ screens with kneeling figures in Egyptian garb, according to the book "Encore: a history of theaters and theater on Oregon's southwest coast."
"It's like walking into a palace," said David Engholm, another Save the Egyptian member. "It takes you to a different place in time."
The building's centerpiece is the Wurlitzer organ, connected to a series of pipes with bellows pushing sound through its reeds. From four keyboards, an organist can control the Wurlitzer's many instruments, including chimes, bird whistles, a xylophone, marimba, drums, cymbal, triangle and castanets.
"It's the only originally installed Wurlitzer left in a theater in Oregon," said Tom DeLay, a historian with the American Theatre Organ Society, who has himself played the Egyptian's organ twice. "It has some specialties in it that most instruments like it don't have. It's a survivor."
Other Wurlitzers were sold as scrap or to churches, with the advent of "talkies" in 1929. The Egyptian's remained. After World War II and the rise of the American automobile, suburban movie theaters drew audiences from old downtown venues. Parking lots and condominiums replaced them.
"People weren't going to movie palaces," said Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America. "The problem with an older downtown theater is they are extremely costly to maintain."
Those who would save the Egyptian are well aware of this reality. That's why when a local nonprofit organization, Little Theatre on the Bay, approached the city last fall about a grant to buy the place, the intent was to change the Egyptian's focus. The group planned to host live performances and concerts, screen silent or foreign films, and maybe sponsor an independent film festival.
Negotiating with Coming Attractions was tricky, said Jeff Cragun, director of Little Theatre's physical plant. The company wanted to ensure that the Egyptian didn't compete with the Pony Village theaters. Still, Cragun added, the company was and is "committed to seeing that the Egyptian stays in this community, and is preserved," he said.
The two parties even inked a tentative deal. The Egyptian was appraised at $1.2 million. Coming Attractions wanted half of that in cash, calling the remaining $600,000 a donation to Little Theatre, a tax write-off. That would allow the nonprofit group to hold a "matching" fundraising drive, encouraging other donors to equal Coming Attractions' "contribution."
But the city threw a wrench into the deal, Cragun said.
"The city wanted to buy the building," he said. "Coming Attractions got no tax benefit and we wouldn't have had that matching ability. We would have started out hamstrung, from the beginning."
When Little Theatre withdrew its offer, the Egyptian's fate looked bleak.
Peeved that the city had gotten in the way, Coming Attractions' Chief Executive Officer John Schweiger told city officials that if he didn't have an offer from them by the end of January, the price would increase, month by month. And no "first-run" films would be allowed.
At its first meeting of the year, the city's Urban Renewal Agency - all of whose members are on the City Council - decided to offer Coming Attractions $400,000 for the theater, along with a promise not to show movies less than five years old. At the meeting, councilors bashed the company for being hard-nosed negotiators.
"Coming Attractions is being difficult to deal with," said Mayor Joe Benetti. "They gave us deadlines. They weren't going to allow us to show any movies in there."
Benetti says it's unfair to blame the city for the Little Theatre deal falling apart. With taxpayer money involved, things needed to proceed slowly, and ultimately, city officials thought it better to put the theater in the hands of a group with broader interests, such as Save the Egyptian. Coming Attractions' rush to strike a deal made things awkward, he said.
Things are still awkward. Coming Attractions' executives demanded an apology for negative statements city councilors have made at recent meetings, and countered the $400,000 offer by not budging from its original figure of $600,000, plus a deed restriction preventing any screenings less than 10 years old.
Still, the talks are ongoing, and the theater's would-be saviors remain hopeful. It could cost several million dollars to bring the Egyptian up to code, they reason, which limits the number of potential buyers.
"Who's going to want to buy it if they can't show movies?" Tribble said. "It will cost too much to convert it into something else. Who are they going to sell it to, except to someone like us?"
Even if a deal can be reached, however, the challenge of keeping the Egyptian alive won't be over. Without blockbuster films to keep it profitable, breaking even will be a constant struggle.
"You've got to have somebody with very deep pockets, somebody as stupid as I am, to run the Egyptian as an art house. They're going to lose a lot of money," predicted Florence developer James Genereaux, who owned Florence's Harbor Theatre before it was sold and turned into a shoe store. "To run an art theater, you need a minimum of 250,000 people and a university. The Bijou survives in Eugene because they have the University of Oregon right there, and they're drawing from a quarter-million people."
Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or email@example.com.
The Egyptian Theatre has been closed by its owners, but a group of locals is fighting to restore it to some kind of operation. For sale signs have replaced movie posters. Concerts and performances and maybe a film festival have been discussed for a restored Egyptian Theatre.