Think Out Loud

Federal funds aid in restoration of La Grande theater

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Oct. 7, 2022 11:45 p.m. Updated: Oct. 17, 2022 8:31 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Oct. 10

The Liberty Theater in La Grande, Oregon will be receiving a federal grant for almost $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. In July 1999, the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Almost a decade later, restoration efforts began. Ashley O’Toole is the Board Chair of the Liberty Theater Foundation, the organization that is spearheading restoration efforts. He joins us to share what this federal grant will mean for the theater and his hopes for the future.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. What’s now called the Liberty Theater in La Grande opened in 1910. It welcomed audiences for half a century or so before closing down. Then in 2009, almost 100 years after it was built, a group of La Grande residents came together to try to bring it back to life. Their work has taken a lot of time and a lot of money. But thanks to a recent grant from the federal government, nearly $600,000, the finish line is finally in sight. Ashley O’Toole is the Board Chair of the Liberty Theater Foundation, which is spearheading restoration efforts. He joins us to share what this federal grant is going to mean for the theater and for the city as a whole. Ashley O’Toole, welcome.

Ashley O’Toole: Hey, thank you so much for having me today.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for what this theater was like when it opened in 1910?

O’Toole: Sure. Well in 1910, the theater originally opened, it was called the Arcade Theatre. And it certainly was a bit of a beacon here in northeast Oregon for entertainment. It was a vaudeville theater originally. For those unfamiliar with vaudeville, sort of a lower budget production, quick vignettes and plays, not a lot of technology involved. But in the days of the early 1900s, when there weren’t televisions and hardly any cinema movie theaters, this was a big deal. People came from far and wide to the Arcade Theatre for vaudeville entertainment.

Miller: And then silent movies and talkies arrived. What did that mean for the theater?

O’Toole: That’s right, yeah. So for about 20 years, the theater operated as the arcade, as a vaudeville theater. And then in the 1930s, to keep up with the times, the theater shut down for a little bit while it underwent a major renovation and upgrade to have a grand opening as the Liberty Theater, as we call it today, with an installation of a cinema system included in that. It had a grand reopening right in the middle of that art deco era. I’m sure it looked beautiful back then.

Miller: What have you been able to learn about what the theater meant for Le Grande, or maybe even the surrounding areas in its heyday?

O’Toole: Its heyday definitely was the 1930s, 1940s. That’s what we’ve identified as the era of historical significance, so they say. It was one of the first cinema systems, our first movie theater in Le Grande, and one of the first here in northeast Oregon. So again, kind of becoming an epicenter for entertainment. We like to think of it as Le Grande’s living room, or perhaps northeast Oregon’s living room there for some time. And that’s what we’re really excited to restore and bring back.

Miller: Before we get to the restoration though, we should talk about what happened after that. Why did the theater close in 1959?

O’Toole: 1959, the theater did ultimately close. I guess in one word, competition. It wasn’t the only cinema system, the only movie theater in La Grande anymore. In fact, the family that owned the other larger movie theater in town that had since been built took ownership of the Liberty Theater, operated it for some time, and then ultimately decided to consolidate and shut the Liberty Theater down and managee just their one bigger movie theater.

Miller: What happened to the building after the theater closed?

O’Toole: Gosh, what a life it has had. Almost immediately, work got started converting the building, I won’t even call it a theater for this part of the conversation, into a couple of commercial spaces. If I understand correctly, the first life for the building after the theater was an auto parts store. Crews came in and built a false floor from front to back of the building, a false ceiling from front to back of the building. If you were going in there to get auto parts, you had no idea that you were walking into this historic vaudeville theater.

And it just kind of remained a very drab, boring commercial space for a number of years. It was an auto parts store, there was a bookstore, there was a music store. It was actually a Domino’s Pizza for a long time.


Miller: Wait, so you could go and get a pepperoni pizza and then beneath you was the old floor of a theater, and above you was a big cavernous ceiling that you couldn’t see because there was a drop ceiling?

O’Toole: That’s right, yep, A drop ceiling and a false floor hid all of that from everybody for 50 something years. You’re walking on a false floor, having no idea that you’re really walking over the top of a sloped auditorium floor, and that dropped ceiling that was eight or nine feet above your head, another 20 feet higher than that was a beautiful, gorgeous chandelier still hanging from the auditorium ceiling the entire time.

Miller: And the ghosts of vaudeville performers didn’t haunt the pizza place?

O’Toole: Yeah, no kidding.

One of my favorite things to uncover as we were doing a lot of the demolition was a lot of those little time capsules, actors and cast and production members of those old vaudeville productions inscribing their names into the bricks and things like that. Something will be dated such and such play, 1913. That was pretty neat.

Miler: Well, so what was it like when the false floor and the drop ceiling was removed, and folks could actually see the theater again for the first time in half a century?

O’Toole: “Wow.” A whole lot of wow factor. We had already started to get some public engagement, but when we were getting through that demolition work, opening up the theater again, as far as the grandeur, the size of it, that’s really what it was, just a whole lot of “wow, this was here the whole time?” And of course, made it a lot easier for people to start imagining what we’re doing, and what our goals are.

Miller: How have you gotten residents in La Grande on board with this emotionally and financially?

O’Toole: Right. Well as you mentioned, this all started with an idea, a group of folks back in 2009 or so with a good idea. The foundation was started in the very end of 2011, got to work in 2012 with a bunch of fundraising community engagement. And a big part of that was sort of a partial demolition towards the back of the building where we could open up what we called the Stage Door Theater, which was this very small theater, I think you can fit about 40-60 people in it, to kind of at least try to build the buzz, sell tickets for an event at the Liberty Theater again. Using that to leverage donations of course, offer tours of the building, and kind of help build that excitement with the public for what we’ve got ahead of us and what we’re trying to accomplish.

Miller: How much work has already been done?

O’Toole: Well I’d say overall, depending on what 0% means to you-

Miller: 0% means I could walk in and get a car battery or two large cheese pizzas.

O’Toole: Right, okay. If that is 0%, then we’re somewhere around 80%, 85%. We are very close. We can taste it. And so much of that started with extensive demolition as we touched on already removing the false floor and the false ceiling. But for Pete’s sake, even the Domino’s Pizza, when they were in there, they had their large oven which required a large ventilation system, and that ventilation system punctured a hole straight through the lobby ceiling, the balcony seating, new roof penetration through the top of the building. I mean, just unbelievable work just to get the theater to a point where we can phase out of demolition and phase into restoration.

We hit that point at around 2019. We were able to say “okay, we are done with enough of this demolition,” which included everything from of course asbestos abatement, lead based paint abatement, phase one environmental surveys, all that good stuff was what we had in motion through the years 2016-2018.

Miller: And then came the pandemic. and then came the supply chain issues and huge rising costs of labor and goods and services. And then this almost $600,000 federal grant, which as I noted, is expected to be able to put you all over the top to finish this.

I’ve just encapsulated a lot of recent history, but I’m just curious, looking forward, when this is done, this is no longer going to be the only movie theater or theater in town. A lot has changed in 110 years. What are your hopes, in the minute we have left, for what this theater could mean?

O’Toole: As much diversity in programming as possible. Because we are rebuilding it today, we get to have today’s ideas and brainpower going into this. So a full state of the art cinema system, absolutely. We’re not going to do first run movies, we’ll let the other theaters take care of that. But we’re happy to be playing some of the cult classics and some of the old, maybe black and white silent films and that sort of thing as well. But also live music, live speaking events, limited engagements of live theatre, performance theatre. So not to mention, let’s book it out for private events. We really have every idea on the table, and we’re trying to build a theater that will accommodate as much of that diversity in programming as we can.

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