March 2, 2006
In the course of kindling the phoenix of the Avalon I stumbled upon a piece of Corvallis history: the ticket stub from the last show at the Whiteside Theater. It was from January 2002. The movie was LORD OF THE RINGS. It was the last movie on the last night that the last movie palace in Corvallis had something shimmering on its silver screen.
The Whiteside Theater is owned by Regal Cinemas, the same folks who bring you the Ninth Street Cinemas. They closed the Whiteside a couple of years before Carmike dropped that 12-plex into north town. Wonder if they ever considered that keeping the Whiteside open might’ve made Carmike back off our fair hamlet—at least for a while. Every day when I walk past the closed doors of the Whiteside, I contemplate the circumstantial dominos that fell and led to her fall. People still wonder why I opened a theater across the street rather than putting my energy into the Corvallis icon. When folks ask directly, I usually cut them short by pointing out, “If you have a million-five you’re not doing anything with, I’ll be glad to take her on.”
Despite my sarcasm, the Whiteside still sits quietly, waiting in limbo for resurrection or eternal death. Why isn’t anyone taking her on? Simply put: it's the math. The numbers do not crunch kindly for this old theater. To open it as a cinema again, there is probably about a million dollars in work to make the building habitable. That’s before the doors can open. Add to that $500,000 needed to buy the building and you have payments that will never come close to being met by a single screen theater in a 50k population town with 21 screens. Anyone with any business sense will run like heck in the other direction if approached with reopening the Whiteside as a cinema.
So, how about opening it as a live venue with food? This is where things get really fun. If you make the Whiteside something other than a theater you get hit with federal, state, county, and city “change of use” requirements. Let’s start with parking. Right now the old gal’s parking is grandfathered in. As soon as you make her something other than a cinema, you need to comply with all the parking requirements as new construction. Then we have seismic requirements. As she sits, you can open her as a cinema (after renovation) and get away with everything pretty much as it is. Make it a restaurant or nightclub, and you’ll need to cover every brick wall with chain link (during a seismic event, the shifting of the building will compress the bricks so they spit out like killer watermelon seeds). That balcony will probably have to go and we’re not even warmed up yet.
So let’s say you get all new plumbing, heating, cooling, roof, electrical, projection equipment, restrooms and so on and, presto, you’re open as a cinema. Did you think you would be able to get films? Any movie company that even thinks of giving the Whiteside a movie that would fill the 900 seats will get three kinds of hell from Carmike. If Fine Line Features discovers Tolkein wrote another Lord of the Rings and gives that movie to the Whiteside, they can pretty much count on Carmike not playing any of their other films for a long time—and not just in Corvallis. It’s Show Business, kids. Not Show Art. Fine Line will make the smart business decision. End of story. Old films have their fan base here, but won’t draw 900 people a night in this town. Trust me. I know. The art-house market would be a lawnmower engine trying to propel the Whiteside locomotive. That just leaves porno and a meth lab as the real moneymakers for the Whiteside…
These are some of the reasons we have the Darkside Cinema and not the Whiteside Theater. What can save the Whiteside? I don’t think there are a lot of people that have thought more about that than me. Admittedly, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer—but I’ve got no clue. Most people thinking of doing something with her eventually land on my doorstep, so I have heard some good ideas. Lots of thinking happening, just not a lot happening.