Cast your imagination back to the Bagdad’s original opening day, in 1927…. Outside the new “Oasis for Entertainment,” hundreds crowded onto Hawthorne Boulevard, which was roped off for the big event. A street dance jumped to a live band as searchlights sliced through the night sky. Portland Mayor George Baker gave a rousing speech heralding the building’s importance to the community. And an orchestra performance, male quartet, Maryln Mills and her famous horse Beverly, a jazz band, a stuffed prop camel and a screening of Laura LaPlante’s Her Big Night (1926) dazzled all who attended. It was truly a glamorous night of nights on Hawthorne Boulevard.
For several generations, “Meet me at the Bagdad!” was the slogan for area residents looking for a convenient escape or to catch a glimpse of stardom. Since acquiring the Bagdad in 1991, the McMenamins aim has been to continue that long tradition as a community gathering spot.
Few expenses were spared to create the eastside Portland movie palace. Capitalized in part by the deep pockets of its parent company, Universal Pictures, the Bagdad was called “a triumph of artistry and craftsmanship.” In 1927, it stood as the city’s largest theater outside the downtown area. Beyond its immense size, guests marveled at the theater’s gurgling fountain and grand colonnade in its foyer, along with its faux-Middle-Eastern decor, right down to the Arabian-styled uniforms worn by the usherettes. Even the conductor selected to lead the Bagdad’s house orchestra was a musician of great prominence, having studied under Tchaikovsky.
At the time of the Bagdad’s opening, Americans’ fixation with movies and Hollywood was already well established. Demonstrating the local craving for celluloid heroes, a cider mill and church were sacrificed in order for the ornate Bagdad to be built on the site. A surge of excitement was generated worldwide in the months following the Bagdad’s opening by the premiere of the first “talkies.” Prior to 1927, theatergoers had enjoyed only silent films, accompanied by an organist or, in the more posh movie palaces like the Bagdad, a live orchestras. And, of course, vaudeville acts were very popular.
So during the Bagdad’s first years, silent movies and vaudeville reigned supreme. In fact, vaudeville remained a key part of the theater programming through the 1940s. Sammy Davis, Jr., performing with the Will Mastin Trio, was one of the many acts to grace its expansive stage.
The Bagdad has also been the scene of some notable movie premiere galas, including Star Trek III, 1776 and A Star is Born. In 1975, actors Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher along with producer Michael Douglas appeared at the Bagdad for the Oregon premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. About fifteen years later, soon after McMenamins took stewardship, the premiere of My Own Private Idaho was screened here. These historic events and many others were depicted by McMenamins artists in a huge, colorful mural that hangs today at our Back Stage Bar, just around the corner.
By the mid-1980s, the local and national media was issuing dire predictions about the health of all single-screen movie theaters. McMenamins, though, jumped at the opportunity to take over the Bagdad, bolstered by its success with its first theater-pub, The Mission in Northwest Portland, which opened in 1987.
Over the course of McMenamins’ stewardship, the Bagdad hosted second-run films as well as special events. Through the Powell’s Books Author Series, welcomed a parade of prominent writers and poets in the main auditorium. Music, too, became a popular addition as the occasional performance graced the main stage. Local and independent film screenings, stand-up comedians and trivia nights further added to the mix, while the beautiful space was often rented out for late-night private events and parties.
As part of the conversion to a first-run-films theater, major upgrades and overall improvements to this grande ol’ dame include a 50% larger screen, 20,000-watt Surround Sound, K Prime digital projector and comfy new rocker seating. This state-of-the-art technical experience offers the latest in accessibility with closed captioning and hearing-impaired options.
The concession menu has also undergone an upgrade, with an expanded tap selection and theater classics like fresh pizza slices, popcorn and candy. Additional menu items will be delivered to the balcony seats, thus improving the flow of foot traffic into the viewing area.
The Bagdad’s much ballyhooed 1927 opening changed the face of the neighborhood and brought the allure of Hollywood to Southeast Portland. Through the years, this landmark property’s role grew as a favorite destination for folks from all over the region. We hope you continue to enjoy the historic, elegant Bagdad Theater as the people of Portland have for nearly ninety years (and counting).
This marvelous relic of Hollywood’s Golden Age is a movie palace full of wonder and surprises. For nearly four generations now, the Bagdad’s Mediterranean/neon persona and daily films have made it an icon of Portland’s vibrant Hawthorne District. The interior is an attraction in and of itself, with barreled arches, ornate wrought-iron fixtures, brilliant mosaics and painted Mediterranean designs and characters.
Kick back in the theater for enjoy a slice of pizza and a handcrafted ale during the show, or come early and enjoy dinner in the casual pub that fronts the theater – but beware, outdoor tables in the summertime may be hard to come by! It’s some of the best people-watching seats in the whole city.
As part of my Portland adventures I knew I had to check out the World Famous Bagdad Theater and Pub on Hawthorne. How could I not? Just for the exterior alone – this theater was sure to whisper me stories in the dark. If I listened close enough it would tell me the secret as to why it was still standing all these years.
It did. The secret was in its unique ambiance, awesome customer service and cheeky stance in a time where the world outside is far grimmer than decades past when it first opened.
I settled in to watch ‘Interstellar’ whilst I was in town checking out the Bagdad Theater and Pub. I made my way up to the balcony which I was told by one of the ushers is the best place to see the immense screening. She was right.
I was sat comfortably right in the centre of the first aisle by the balcony. The seats were comfortable and you were actually able to lounge without zapping the person behind you. I popped my phone on the table ledge in front of me and instantly felt like a VIP.
I was sat beside a really sweet couple who were eager to fill me in on the history of the Bagdad and also the furnishings of the space. We both marvelled at the gorgeous antique chandeliers which I was told takes over 4 hours to clean and outfit with new bulbs once a year.
I loved the Mediterranean meets almost Middle Eastern feel of the space. It felt appropriate and vintage without the shabbiness.
‘Interstellar’ was over three hours long so it was neat to see what people around me were eating without feeling distracted. There were people indeed eating pizza and other pub fare. The fare was ordered and then brought to the patrons at their respective seats once numbers were placed at their tables during the film. It all felt very civilized and made me wonder why we don’t have something similar back home? By the way, there are two menus: One for Counter Fare and the other for the Balcony.
It was great to see that the drinks, cocktails and candy at the traditional concession stand were affordable and diverse. You may think you don’t want anything to nibble or sip on but as soon as you see that concession stand those thoughts will get tossed out the window super fast. Brilliant marketing!
Even though we were all sitting in a grand space it didn’t feel cramped nor did it feel like people were going to get into your business once the film started. Everyone was in for a good time and indeed a lot of people watching was in full effect. Portland has such interesting characters. There were young people, middle aged folks and even some seniors. Clearly, Bagdad veterans. No nonsense. All business in the name of a good cinema time.
Did I enjoy watching ‘Interstellar’ at the Bagdad Theater? I did! It was tremendous and for the price it was a neat experience as a visitor to Portland. We can all boast about how great our Theaters are in our hometown. But I much rather brag about how I went to the Bagdad Theater and Pub in Portland whilst travelling and took in classic film experience that only people in Portland know to do with flair, cheekiness and a good time with a pint in hand.
Bagdad Theater and Pub
3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
Pub: (503) 467-7521
Movie Line: (503) 249-7474 x1