Is Rivoli Pendleton’s Missing Link? by Tom Hebert
Let’s be clear, you and I: Generally I don’t divulge to anyone that I majored in theatre arts, Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon. Surely not in a newspaper. But several years ago I began to admit to this heresy to other corporate and government managers. To my surprise, with a coming-out-of-the-closet air of relief, several confessed, “Me too!” So there’s a sort of brotherhood of fallen-away drama majors out there who have made it in business or government because they learned the essentials of good management in theatre, that most entrepreneurial, demanding, and accountable of managerial arenas.
Anyway, all that goes to explain why the other day I found myself clearing decades of debris from a dilapidated old theatre stage in downtown Pendleton.
And then, by the light of a Coleman propane lantern, reading aloud to an empty house from an old playscript. The Stage Manager speaks:
“This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder. The name of our town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The first act shows a day in our town. The date is May 7, 1901, just before dawn. Aya, just about. Sky is beginnin' to show some streaks of light over in the East there, back of our mountain. The mornin' star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go. Well, now I’ll show you how our town lies. Up here is Main Street.”
While that was fun, truth is I wanted to be the first one in all these years to honor that good old stage, recognizing that there was still a playable house—waiting there—to come alive.
To begin at the beginning
Despite its current dank, gloom, and darkness, other recent visitors to Pendleton’s oddly neglected Rivoli Theatre on our Main Street have been astonished, struck by the powerful, dramatic yet intimate physical relationships between the stage and the audience. Wow! With its high, high ceiling, close-in balcony, its obvious “touch of elegance”, clearly this was built as a legitimate theatre house to reckon with. Returned to its former glory, the Rivoli Theatre would again be “a favorite of audiences and performers alike.”
Happily, restoring these old theatres and movie palaces is still viewed as a viable step in redeveloping downtowns. It is being done all over the nation. With their high domed ceilings, chandeliers and elegant foyers, these theatres were all designed to “transport patrons to a world of richness and splendor.” Now, most of those that have escaped the wrecking ball are assuming new civic functions as well. They can thus again contribute in a meaningful way toward the well-being of their communities.
As Pendleton once again moves to rediscover itself, the Rivoli is something too remarkable to pass over. Intuitively, it just seems appropriate to consider the Rivoli as vital to Pendleton and the much-needed trigger event for downtown redevelopment while making “our town” much more livable. A great new place to go, if … the public planning goes right.
And arts mean business
This is because that nationwide, towns and cities have realized that arts can stimulate community spirit, civic involvement, tourism, and economic vitality. As Sue Robinson of the Partners for Livable Communities in Washington, D. C. has written,
The city’s task is to make downtown an exciting place, changing the perception of individuals toward the downtown. Cultural assets are activity anchors. By creating an aura of activity which attracts shoppers, tourists, arts enthusiasts, and most importantly, business and developers, the arts enhance the vitality and quality of the tourist product… the city. The arts, both performing and visual, can fill hotel rooms, taxi cabs and restaurants, spinning off considerable economic gain to the arts organizations, tourist-related activities, and the City’s coffers. Connecting the arts to tourism and economic development also allows arts organizations to get out from under finite, cyclical, and dependency-producing grants. But cultural, environmental, and tourism planning must have similar goals and be undertaken simultaneously.
Opened in 1921 by local theatre magnet Casswell Guy Matlock, downtown excitement and economic gain is why the Rivoli was built. The East Oregonian of August 31, 1921 wrote: “Pendleton, with the opening of the new $110,000 Rivoli Theatre, will boast a playhouse which will accommodate a better class of road shows and moving pictures.”
Entertaining Pendletonians and visitors alike, while offering everything from vaudeville and silent movies to touring shows to Hollywood blockbusters, throughout the remaining 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, the Rivoli reigned as Pendleton’s premier movie and variety theatre.
However, with the emergence of television in the 1950’s like all downtown theatres, its patronage declined. Forced to close sometime in the 1970’s, the Rivoli barely escaped demolition. But today, you ask older folks about the Rivoli and you hear good memories about a place of lasting meaning.
The Rivoli was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985Ñsee the brass plaque on the building front. Saved again from a fate worse than death, it was recently bought at auction by local businessman, Greg Galloway, who is enthusiastic about returning the Rivoli to community service in one form or another. Options in purpose, uses, design, financing, and organizational structure will need to be studied before any major decisions can be made. At that point, a Friends of the Rivoli citizens group will be needed to move a Rivoli Theatre project onto Pendleton’s agenda.
The showplace of Pendleton, again
After a complete cosmetic overhaul, the Rivoli will require refurbished seating, bathrooms, HVAC, dressing rooms, new sound and lighting systems, and a refurbished “green room.” While the inside of the building is in great disarray, the building is said to be structurally sound, which is the very good news. Because the existing stage is shallow, a generous forestage must be built five to seven feet beyond the curtain line in a gentle curve from one side of the proscenium arch to the other.
In addition to refurbishing the current marquee, the famous two-story “RIVOLI” vertical sign on the front of the theatre must be recreated if the theatre is going to make its mark again. Today the sign could be easily seen from the Interstate, lighting the way for tourists and travelers to downtown. Combined with other large building business signs in the manner of the 1950’s, downtown Pendleton could once again have the look of a really big small town. (Of course, the building facades would also have to be rehabilitated.)
From a vaudeville house to a “picture palace” to a community showplace for the 21st century, a revived Rivoli could still offer Pendleton and the region the finest local venue for entertainment and cultural events.
Uses? A shopping list
With musical offerings from blues to rock to bluegrass and classical to country, plus dance and modern vaudeville, the Rivoli could once again takes its place at the center of Pendleton’s cultural life. And with a schedule of silent films and western movie festivals, and independent films that rarely come to Pendleton, the Rivoli could also function as a single-screen movie house again. The Rivoli could become a second home of the East Oregon Symphony and could also welcome a wide variety of road shows each year. Add in community theatre, summer ElderHostel lecture and performance programs, a Chautauqua series on regional and Umatilla Tribal history, vaudeville/variety shows (working with Main Street Cowboys), pizza and beer nights, hall rentals, public benefits, fund-raisers and public tours, and the Rivoli should pencil out as a downtown economic generator.
Particularly if this restoration project is combined with a new theatre complex replacing the existing Pendleton Cinemas, one with other attractions that would also give our kids a good downtown place to hang out, a place to have fun.
With 300 to 350 seats on the main floor and another 250 or so in the balcony, as a new community amenity it would also amplify the value of the Round-Up, the Vert Auditorium, the Convention Center, the Arts Center, Underground Tours, our several museums. A snazzy, dressed-up Rivoli is almost the missing link. And behind it all… a booming five-rank concert theatre pipe organ with a brass band on stage to bring in tourists?
The Rivoli’s Wurlitzer
The Rivoli Theatre had a fine Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ installed in July 1921 at a cost of $19,000. It decamped Pendleton for Seattle in 1946. Its disposition is unknown. But such organs can be found, rebuilt, and reinstalled in new homes like the Rivoli. Tom Blackwell, president of the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society wrote us: “Exciting to hear about downtown Pendleton being reborn! An original theatre pipe organ which could rally community support and truly invoke the magic of the grand old theatre’s of the 1920Õs. With 5 ranks, a Style 170 Wurlitzer was actually above average in size.” As was, and as is, Pendleton today!
The “Pendleton Downtown Riverfront Urban Renewal Plan” on page 1 lists its Goals and Objectives: “Increase the Vitality of Pendleton’s Downtown. Strengthen downtown’s role as the retail, service, office, tourist and cultural heart of the Pendleton community. Promote rehabilitation and restoration of historic and cultural structures in the downtown core. Increase downtown’s attraction to Pendleton residents and visitors; and improve downtown cultural facilities and promote construction of new cultural attractions.”
All that spells Rivoli. But it will take the entire community to get behind a project of this importance. As a city planner [Mark Seder] familiar with Pendleton has recently written, “What a tremendous shot in the arm for downtown the re-opening of the Rivoli would be!”
If Pendleton brings back its acres of unused Upper Stories, and rediscovers the Pendleton Round-Up, while adding the Rivoli to the mix, well, now we are getting up to a critical mass, Pendleton’s new take-off point.
Truth or consequences
But to be honest, what is the likelihood of this happening: marginal at best. To learn why, let us turn to Christopher Alexander, Distinguished Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley. His 1987 book, “A New Theory of Urban Design,” Oxford University Press, carries a special poignancy for citizens of a very livable Pendleton that every September once made itself felt all over the nation. But no longer does:
“Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city, make it whole. Every project must first be experienced, and then expressed, as a vision which can be seen in the inner eye (literally). We have found that the substance of any growth in the city, can be either "authentic” or not… heartfelt or not… coming from human impulses … or not. This happens because the wholeness touches us, reaches the deepest levels in us, has the power to move us, to bring us to tears, to make us happy. All traditional towns have these features in their growth. But the modern practice of urban development does not."
Pendleton will soon be on the move again, but I see no magic or heart or dream in its predictable march towards economic expansion. I fear it is simply another old town on the make. Watching the Rivoli will tell us much.
Meanwhile, “Everybody’s resting in Grover’s Corners. Tomorrow’s going to be another day. You get a good rest too. Good night.”
Tom Hebert is a writer and public policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton. At Linfield College, he once managed to turn an old movie palace, The Lark, back into a real theatre. His email is
(Thanks to Tom Hebert and The Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society for providing the photos.)