The Gem Theatre in Athena in northeast Oregon began life as a saloon, a theater, a store and even a bomb shelter until it was ultimately abandoned and stood empty for 55 years. That is until a group of residents took restoration efforts into their own hands. After nearly 20 years, more than $2 million and hours of volunteer work, the building is close to being completely renovated. Project Manager Rob Mcintyre is hopeful it will be ready for the public by the end of this year. Elsa Rogers is a senior at Weston-McEwen High School and has volunteered in restoration efforts since she was a fifth grader. They both join us now to share what restoration efforts look like now and what this theater will mean for the community once complete.
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. The Gem Theatre in Athena in northeastern Oregon has lived many lives. It was a saloon and a theater and a store and even a bomb shelter and then it closed and was empty for 55 years. Then about 20 years ago, a group of local residents, including many students, started working on it. Through the great recession and the pandemic, they have toiled away and have raised more than $2 million to bring the theater back to its former glory. They are finally nearing the finish line. Earlier this month, they received a grant from the Port of Umatilla that will get them closer. Rob Mcintyre is a project manager for the theater’s restoration, and he is the music department in the Weston-McEwen School District. Elsa Rogers is a senior at Weston-McEwen High School who has been volunteering for the project since she was in the fifth grade. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.
Elsa Rogers: Great to be here.
Rob Mcintyre: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be here.
Mcintyre: I’m pinching myself.
Miller: [laughs] You’re pinching yourself?
Miller: All right. It is very, very real. As is this building that you’ve dedicated so much time and effort and money into. It was first constructed in 1901, and I gave just a few words of its history. Can you give us a sense for what this building has been over the course of its life?
Mcintyre: Well, it was a theater beginning in 1909, and it remained a theater until the Great Depression closed at the first time. Then it sat vacant and ironically there was an attempt in the community to start a volunteer effort to revitalize it; this was in about 1936. That didn’t grow any legs, so it was purchased by a businessman from Eastern Oregon who had a string of small theaters in little towns around here. He renovated it, and it was a theater again, then became the Gem Theatre, and it would be open until 1968. Then it began sitting vacant again, and for the last 40 years, in particular, it really went into decline. It was just sort of locked up and forgotten about, I’m sorry to say.
Miller: What have you heard perhaps from longtime residents about what it was like when it was a theater? I mean, have you heard people’s memories about going there as kids, say?
Mcintyre: I have memories of this building that go back to 1915. When we started this, we had a lady in town who lived to be 106 and lived her whole life here. She actually dated the projectionist when it was a silent film theater and remembered watching Charlie Chaplin in here in 1915. The films arrived in those days by train. She told a story, a really good story, about one day the train was late, and all the patrons of the theater went to the train station, met the film and then accompanied it down here. So, yeah, a lot of wonderful stories. And then from the 50s and 60s, there are still a lot of people living in town who remember having their first date here, for example.
Miller: Did that woman who dated the projectionist get to watch free from the booth?
Mcintyre: Yeah, she did actually. The booth though… in those days there was no balcony, so that she had to climb up a ladder into a crow’s nest, the way she described it.
Miller: Huh.. And then it closed down and then reopened and then closed down for half a century. What was it like when you first stepped inside and thought about renovating it? Can you give us a sense for what it looked like at that point after it had been closed for so long?
Mcintyre: We looked for dead bodies, to be honest.
Miller: Did you find any?
Mcintyre: No, fortunately there were no dead bodies. But, in the basement in particular, there were sheets of cobwebs that were floor to ceiling. The first time I went in there, I was thinking about Indiana Jones. You know that scene where, you know, ‘Señor, spiders. Señor.’ I was thinking along those lines.
Miller: Were you also thinking immediately, ‘Ah, this is something I should spend 20 years of my life on’?
Mcintyre: Well, the 20 years part I never thought of. I didn’t think that it would take us this long. But, to be honest… I’ve been with the school district since the fall of 2000. When I applied for this job, I asked about this building in the job interview. So this was something that I always thought that I would do. I thought that my life experience was such that I was just sort of, this was a natural event for me – something that would be a lifetime project.
Miller: Why? What was it about your life experiences that made you think that?
Mcintyre: I could talk for an hour. Elsa is already raising her eyebrows at me. [laughter] We could talk for an hour about this. I grew up with a group of people who built a summer camp in the Idaho mountains, and it was almost all built by volunteers. These were people that came out of the Great Depression and World War II. They were that generation. I grew up with these people, and I watched them do this thing. I thought how wonderful it would be if I could spearhead a project like that. Of course, I’m an arts instructor, and in small towns we never have access to the arts. As far as facility especially, we’re very short handed. So this just seemed like a natural fit for me.
Miller: All right. Elsa, Rob mentioned that you’re rolling your eyes at him, which is something… [laughs] Before we started talking he had said, if he talks too long just hit him. And you said you don’t want to hit him. And I said you could roll your eyes. So that’s what you were doing. I mentioned you were in fifth grade when you started volunteering to work on this. What did you do as a fifth grader?
Rogers: I did a lot of different stuff. I’ve helped with all kinds of things on the building. Mostly, I guess ‘kid friendly’ work, in air quotes. I did a lot of painting. I helped with pointing brick, laying floorboards… We’d get a little group of the kids together and haul like one sheet of drywall, whatever we could do. It was just such a fun way to spend a Saturday. Especially when you’re a kid, you don’t have a lot of experience in the world. You know, I didn’t know anything about volunteering or anything. This was just something fun to do with my friends. But now looking back on it, it was such a valuable experience for me to come down here and see that the work I was doing was having some kind of effect, that the labor I was putting in was having results.
Miller: So what started as a kind of fun thing, over time it started to feel more significant.
Rogers: Yeah. It’s been really meaningful, now in my senior year of high school, to come down here and see how far the project has come. I mean, this project is almost as old as I am. I think it’s actually probably older than me. I’m 18 now. I don’t know, just at this really strange time in my life of being a senior in high school and coming down here to see how far it’s come. It means a lot to know that I was so involved in the project for so many years. And now, as I kind of get ready to jump the nest of my hometown, I see that this is gonna be something I can leave behind.
Miller: Are you in the building right now?
Rogers: Yeah, we’re on the stage.
Miller: Well, can you describe, Elsa, what it looks like right now?
Rogers: Right now, Mr. Mac and I are sitting on the stage looking out at where the seating in the theater is going to be. We’re looking up at the marquee-style lights on the balcony and the fresh green paint on the back of the room. The little exit sign that’s above the door is bright red. There’s fresh carpet in the back of the room and along the aisle, between where the seats will be. There’s no seats in here quite yet, but it’s pretty easy to see where they’ll go.
Miller: How much of what you’ve just described – the paint and the carpet and the balcony, all of that. How much did you have a hand in fixing up or creating or re-creating?
Rogers: Full honesty, not too much in this room. I did a lot in more of the Star Saloon space and up where the Hodaka Museum is going to be. But…
Mcintyre: You painted in here. And you helped move…
Rogers: I did paint in here.
Mcintyre: Yeah, and she helped move all the drywall. There’s 924 sheets of drywall in this building. It was all moved by kids, and it was all hung by volunteers – every piece of it.
Miller: Rob, what was your pitch? How did you get – from fifth graders on up, community members – how did you get hundreds of people to participate in this?
Mcintyre: Well, the hundreds came over a period of years. Mostly these were kids from my band classes. They had a tendency to be more of the younger kids than the older kids. The older kids, our band kids, they’re involved in everything. They get to high school and they’re doing double, triple duty in school, covering all these different bases because that’s just the kind of kids they are. But, 13- 14- 12- 11-year-olds, very, very, very active.
Miller: And easier to trick them into thinking it’s fun to move drywall.
Mcintyre: Well, to be honest, the high school band moved most of the drywall.
Miller: [laughing] Okay.
Mcintyre: Now they did it during class. I had permission to bring the band down here, and we just did it. Two units at a time. We had to stage it. It had to be moved up three floors in some cases. So you had a crew on the first floor, a crew on the second floor, a crew on the third floor, and you just passed it up.
Miller: A fireman’s brigade of drywall for people who weren’t playing trombone at the time.
Mcintyre: Well, it’s cooperative learning, I guess is how I’m gonna pitch it as an educator.
Miller: [laughing] Okay.
Mcintyre: Collaboration is a big part of being in a music group. It just is, and so we were collaborating on the space where they will perform and where their siblings will perform and where their children will perform.
Miller: You really think about this in a kind of generational way – that the space that you and members of the community have been working on recreating, that this is something that generations after will be able to use.
Mcintyre: I hope it lasts 100 years. We have a time capsule in here that we’ve said, ‘You can open it in 100 years.’
Miller: What did you all put in that time capsule? And my understanding is you put it inside one of the walls?
Miller: What’s in it?
Mcintyre: Sure. It started out with kind of an inside joke. You know, when you start something like this, I suppose in any community, you’re gonna have your critics, the people who say, ‘Well, that’s just crazy. You’re never gonna be able to do that.’ We had them here, and we tolerated it because we didn’t really have any choice. But we have a skeleton in the wall whose name is Dr. No. He represents everybody who ever said, ‘You’ll never get this done.’ He kind of hung out in the cavity for a couple of years. We’d walk by and see him with the sign around his neck that said, ‘This is the old person that said we’d never get this done’ and it would just kind of spur us on a little bit. But, we put… oh there’s TigerScot – [mascot of] our local school – there’s TigerScot in there. There’s newspapers. There’s Hodaka motorcycle items. It’s quite a collection.
Rogers: Yeah, they’re the poster I made of him and hung in the band room rolled up in there.
Mcintyre: Yeah, she tried to make me look like a cross between Bill Murray and a dictator of some sort. [laughter] But, yeah, there’s one of those in there.
Rogers: No, no, it’s based on Obama’s campaign posters of him that say ‘Hope’ underneath, except we used an image of Mac and stylized it…
Mcintyre: Okay, you need to remember this is a political free zone, also.
Miller: You’ve both mentioned Hodaka a few times. For people who aren’t familiar with it, what is Hodaka and what’s the connection to Athena?
Mcintyre: In the 1960s, there was a group of wheat– this is wheat country of course, so there were a group of wheat farmers who formed a co-op. They were shipping a lot of their wheat to Japan, including apparently contracting with the actual freighters, the boats that would deliver this wheat. They didn’t have a product to return to the United States with, so the boats were coming back empty. They decided – I think this is kind of the spirit of Athena in so many ways – that they were going to create a solution to this. They had the motorcycle parts engineered here in Athena by the PABATCO Company [Pacific Basin Trading Company]. The parts were manufactured in Japan. When the boats returned from Japan, they returned with all the pieces of the motorcycles, which were then assembled here in Athena, and they were branded as Hodaka motorcycles. This is now a classic American dirt bike.
Miller: And there’s gonna be some kind of a museum commemorating this history in the theater?
Mcintyre: In the Star Saloon.
Miller: Which adjoins the theater.
Mcintyre: Right. We have a lot of space here. We always look for layers, different ways that we can utilize the facility because we want to have people in it.
Miller: You mentioned that you have that skeleton who is now literally just sealed up in one of the walls. ‘Dr. No,’ who represented local residents who thought that you were…
Miller: …out of your mind, crazy, for doing this. What have you heard from that segment of the population as you’ve gotten closer and closer to actually realizing your dream?
Mcintyre: It’s gotten awfully quiet, to be honest. Some of them are now supporters of the project, which we’re grateful for. I’m sure there’s still some criticism out there. It’s just gotten very quiet. I don’t hear it anymore.
Miller: Elsa, what’s kept you going, doing this for seven years?
Rogers: I wanna see it finished. I’ve had Mr. Mac as my band teacher since I was in fifth grade. We’re always hearing about what’s going on with the theater, how the project’s going. I, myself, feel pretty invested in it even though I don’t volunteer quite as much as I used to. And I’m just so excited to see it done. I think it’s gonna be a fantastic space for our community. I’m so excited to bring some art into our tiny little town. I think it’s just gonna be amazing when it’s finished, and I can’t wait.
Miller: Rob, what is the timeline right now? What’s left to do, and how much money and how much physical work will that entail?
Mcintyre: Well, I’m glad you put it that way because people used to ask me, ‘When are you gonna be done?’ I would take the bait, and I was obviously wrong because we’re still sitting here. But we’ve also weathered a few crises in the world. We’re getting ready to put the seats in. That’s gonna happen over the summer. We’ve got some handrails to put in. There’s some painting left to do. We’re gonna go for our occupancy permit probably in June; I believe it will be June. And I have to raise some money for the stage equipment.
We have all the pieces in the wall, all the conduit runs and the design and all that work’s done. But this is expensive equipment, and it’s the last piece. I tried earlier on to get a head start on raising the money for that, but I think it was kind of abstract because we were still drywalling the building at the time. Then we had the pandemic. So, right now, I’ve got to raise a couple of $100,000 for that equipment. But, once we have that blessed resource, we could be done in under a month because most of that is just bringing the specialists in here to install that equipment. Then we can plan our grand opening.
Miller: What do you want that grand opening to be? What are your dreams for that evening?
Mcintyre: Okay. This is where I start having a hard time talking without falling apart; I will warn you about that. We have about a 208-seat auditorium here, with the seats installed. I would love to say we’re gonna have everybody here who’s had a hand in this. We wouldn’t be able to fit them all in the room at the same time. But it’s gonna be a collection of the people who’ve made this happen. There’s a lot of us, and… Yeah, they’ll be here. Somehow I’ll stand up on this stage, and we’ll dedicate this space, this sacred space to the arts, and somehow I’ll manage to not fall apart. I will probably have to be medicated just a little bit, Elsa, to be honest.
Miller: What’s wrong with falling apart?
Mcintyre: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just when you have an agenda, and you’re trying to talk, and you can’t get the words out because you’re choked up. I’ve already been there once describing this project. When we closed up that wall with Dr. No, I wrote a letter. I still can’t read it. I wrote it, but I can’t read it.
Miller: Elsa, I saw a picture of a band that you are in, on the stage. Have you already played on that stage?
Rogers: We were able to come down last week. We marched our little high school band down here, with some chairs set up on the stage, and we were able to play a couple pieces from our band folder in this space. We played some Michael Jackson and a Lady Gaga selection, and it was amazing. It was so much fun.
Miller: Elsa Rogers and Rob Mcintyre, thank you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I wish you the best of luck in finishing up this project of love.
Rogers: Thank you.
Mcintyre: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being with you today.
Miller: Likewise. Rob Mcintyre is the music department at the Weston-McEwen School District. He is the project manager for the Athena’s Gem Theatre, which has been in the works for about 20 years now. Elsa Rogers is now a senior at Weston-McEwen High School. She started work as a volunteer on this project when she was in fifth grade.
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