In the early years of the 1920s, Portland attorney and private art collector George B. Guthrie had a dream to design the best and finest theatre in the city of Salem, Oregon. He decided to chase this dream by enlisting the help of local firm Lawrence and Holdford to design his magnificent theatre. Guthrie wanted the artistic work of architecture to be created in a Tudor Gothic style with the goal of resembling the city of Elsinore from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.”
The first dean of the University of Oregon school of architecture took on the role of the project’s principal architect, entrusted with bringing Guthrie’s creative dream to life. The result was the creation of the most beautiful theatre in the west and the only theatre with a foyer in the classic Gothic “nave and aisle” design in the world. It opened its doors to the public on May 28, 1926, as the one and only silent film house and vaudeville venue in the Salem community known as Elsinore Theatre.
On that fateful evening, people traveled from throughout Oregon to witness the splendor of “The Showplace of the Willamette Valley,” as it was dubbed. Its atmosphere was both mysterious and theatrical that opening night, with every seat in the house filled for two showings of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie “The Volga Boatman” accompanied live by the mighty Wurlitzer organ. Citizens were both captivated and mesmerized, not just by the show but by the building itself and the future it was about to establish in the growing city.
During the 1920s, many vaudeville acts would make their way through the theatre, with weekly stops and shows attracting travelers throughout the area. These casts of unknown actors would later gain fame after having performed so many times over at the Elsinore Theatre. Famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was a frequent act at the theatre in its early years. Even renowned actors like Clark Gable would have ties to the theatre as he practiced lines for auditions on The Elsinore stage while working in a Silverton sawmill. Others like Otis Skinner, Ethel Barrymore, Harry Lauder, and the John Phillip Sousa Marine Band were other popular acts that drew large crowds to the theatre.
Three years after its construction, Guthrie leased the theatre to Fox West Coast Theatres, and it was around this time that sound movies were beginning to pop up. One year after its lease to Fox Theatres, Guthrie then leased it out to a different theater company, Warner Brothers Theaters, which ran Elsinore as a movie theater until 1951.
During these years, young people from far and wide would come to the Elsinore Theatre on Saturdays to be entertained by The Salem Area Mickey Mouse Club, known as “Zollie’s Gang.” Young members of our Salem community would come and see cartoons, newsreels, short westerns or comedies, and performances by their peers while occasionally singing together. It was formative memories of the good ole days, but sadly it wouldn’t last long for the Elsinore Theatre.
In 1954, the theater began a general decline from its once great status in Salem into a second-run movie theater. As a result, the Elsinore was set to be demolished in 1980, and that was to be the end of its grand act. However, fate had other plans for the monumental historic structure as a grassroots effort known as the “Save the Elsinore Committee” came to the building’s defense. Thus began the hard work with local authorities to save the theater, and while they were able to keep the building from demolition, they were unsuccessful in securing measures to restore it.
The “Save the Elsinore Committee” refused to give up, however. They even gained consent from the owner to use the space for 18 days of the year for free community events to spark public interest in the theater and its fate. The events did draw in crowds of upwards of 75,000 people, but that wasn’t enough to prepare the theater for what was about to happen next.
Until 1987, the theater had been one of only three active movie theaters in downtown Salem. Its close proximity to Willamette University and low admission prices drew in enough crowds to keep the theater going. However, the Elsinore’s life as a commercial movie theater would ultimately come to an end that year after the Moyer family opened up a new seven-screen movie theater several blocks away.
With the uncertainty of the theater’s fate hanging in the balance, it was sold in 1989 to Act III Theaters in conjunction with several other local movie theaters in the possession of Tom Moyer, who was the owner at the time. Act III continued to allow the community to have limited use of the theater but had no interest in keeping a 60-year-old movie theater and ultimately decided to put it up for sale in 1990.
The “Save the Elsinore Committee” immediately jumped at the chance to gain ownership of the historical landmark. They decided to merge with the Salem Community Auditorium Committee to create STAGE (Salem Theatre Auditorium Group Enterprises) and immediately began raising money to buy the theater. They were able to meet their goal and buy the property for good, forever establishing it as a performing arts venue that began welcoming Hollywood stars to perform live on stage, such as Gregory Peck, Bonnie Raitt, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones, and Itzhak Perlman. With all the publicity, they continued to raise funds for the building’s operational costs and renovation. Through all their hard work and effort, the theater was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Luckily for the Elsinore Theatre, its final act produced a happy ending. In February of 2002, a deal was finally cut with a local architectural firm to begin restoration on the Elsinore at an estimated cost of $3.2 million. Over the next three summers, repairs would take place to finally restore the theater to its former mystic and grandeur. Now the Elsinore Theatre is looking forward to its next performance, and celebrating 100 years in 2026!