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Cinema 21

The Theater: Cinema 21

616 NW 21st Ave.

Now Playing: In general, because Cinema 21 only has one screen, it only plays one movie at a time.

The current film du jour is Buck, a documentary about an expert horse trainer named Buck Brannaman. Before that, it was The Trip, another documentary in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a road trip and eat at various British restaurants. And before that, it was Viva Riva! When July 22nd rolls around, Cinema 21 will start showing yet another documentary,  If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

If you hadn’t already guessed, this theater is a true arthouse. It’s dedicated to all of the most obscure features currently on the market. Documentaries are featured prominently, as you might have assumed, but the theater also hosts foreign films and indie movies of every stripe.

Of course, that’s not to say the theater is devoted entirely to the small and unknown. Every once in a very rare while, Cinema 21 will screen older classic movies as well. The most recent example to my memory is Battleship Potemkin (a screening I had to miss on account of scheduling, to my great shame).

Strangely enough, the theater often supports amateur pornography as well. This is not only the site of the annual Portland Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, but also the Portland base of HUMP!, the yearly amateur porn festival of the Pacific Northwest (read: Seattle and Portland).

Even weirder, this theater is the de facto Portland headquarters for Tommy Wiseau fans. Cinema 21 has become famous for its monthly screenings of The Room, and a few past screenings have been attended by Wiseau himself. Dressing up in tuxes or red dresses is encouraged and audience participation is mandatory. It’s a great time. Also, talking Johnny bobble-heads and copies of The Room on DVD can be purchased from the box office at any time during business hours.

As a final note, I think it’s worth mentioning that the projectionists play context-sensitive music before the showtime starts. Before Super, for example, the audience was seated to superhero theme songs. With Viva Riva!, I was listening to African drum beats before the curtain came up. It’s a nice touch.

More About the Place: Despite the theater’s advanced age, depressingly little documentation about its history exists. It doesn’t have a spot in the National Register of Historic Places, which probably has something to do with it.

What I can tell you is that the State Theatre (its original name) opened in February of 1925. It featured a locally-made pipe organ, which has somehow disappeared in the years since. In 1941, the theater was renamed “Vista” and given a redesign by architect Lee A. Thomas (the theater’s original architect is unknown). It was renamed “21st Avenue” the year later and “Cinema 21” in 1965.

The theater originally had 730 seats, but the capacity was reduced to 640 during the redesign. They mostly screened double-bills and second-run movies in the 1970s, and then shifted to their current specialty of foreign and arthouse films in the 1980s. I suspect that this latter change may have come about in 1987, when public support and a change of ownership spared the theater from shutting down. The theater remains independently owned and operated to this day.

Also in the Area: The immediate area surrounding Cinema 21 offers no shortage of places to eat. If you need a snack and you don’t want to pay the concession prices, you’ll find a convenience shop just next door. If you need something more appetizing, there are at least half a dozen restaurants and sports bars on 21st Avenue within two blocks of the theater. The Blue Moon is perhaps my favorite so far, offering the best hours, some solid happy hour deals and a nice, relaxed atmosphere.

These bars are all great places to have a party for whatever special occasion. But before you book any of them, you might want to look over here:

You may already be familiar with karaoke bars. Usually, they’re places in which some drunken idiot forces his off-key rendition of Bon Jovi unto an audience of indifferent-to-malicious strangers. Not here. Voicebox Karaoke, located only half a block from Cinema 21, does things the Japanese way (complete with sake drinks!). The bar offers six soundproof rooms and full karaoke equipment in each one. They even have a mobile app that controls the karaoke machines so no one has to fight over the remote. Just grab some friends, bring your own food, rent out a room, pay by the hour, order some drinks and have a great time. Also, be sure to get pictures and video.

But suppose you’re in more of a shopping mood instead. Let’s say you need a unique gift for someone who has everything. I could direct you to many places in Portland that would serve you well in just such an occasion, one of which is only two blocks west of Cinema 21.

NW 23rd Avenue is one of Portland’s great treasured meccas of weird. Here, you can find antique stores, jewelry shops, fashion boutiques, restaurants, pet stores and stuff you never knew existed. Even better, nearly all of the stores are locally owned and several among them make their own products, essentially guaranteeing that whatever you buy will be one-of-a-kind. The only downside is that 23rd Ave is more upscale than N Mississippi Ave, SE Hawthorne, the Saturday Market or other such local business hotspots, which makes 23rd quite a bit more expensive.

Yes, this exists.

Aside from that and the Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital on NW 22nd, there aren’t any particular landmarks in this area. No other shopping centers or buildings that are especially well-known or beloved in the city, just a bunch of businesses and houses. But do you know what the area does have?

Some of the most beautiful urban sights in the city, that’s what!

Couch Park, NW 19th & Glisan

Within a five-block radius of Cinema 21, you’ll find buildings that have been standing since the early 1900’s. Some of them have even been entered into the National Registry of Historic Places.

Such as Irving Street Bowman Apartments, NW 20th and Irving, built in 1926.

To me, this area is that perfect mix of concrete and chlorophyll that represents Portland at its best. I could fill an entire album with pictures of all the wonderful architecture and the gorgeous foliage to be found in this part of the city.

Temple Beth Israel, next to Couch Park.

It comes with a catch, though: Parking is impossible. Every space within ten blocks of Cinema 21 is either taken or restricted at any given time of day and the parking cops are real hardasses. The only parking ticket I ever got (so far) was on a trip to Cinema 21: $150 for blocking a fire hydrant. Of course, this was before I learned that Legacy Hospital allows free parking for Cinema 21 customers during theater hours and that there’s often a lot of parking open on 18th and Hoyt. Still, I’ve been coming in on Tri-Met ever since all the same.

Personal Memories: If I recall correctly, the first movie I ever saw at Cinema 21 was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers back when I was a kid (my mom’s a big musical nut, you see). I don’t remember going back for many years, but I definitely remember coming here to see Let the Right One In for the first time. I later came back again to see Antichrist, which is still one of the most traumatic films I’ve yet seen. Ever since, I’ve been coming back every now and then to catch the occasional under-released arthouse film like Hesher, Super or Julie Taylor’s The Tempest.

This theater is where I got to see The Complete Metropolis several months before it came out on Blu-Ray. It was also the theater that hosted a charity screening of Stripes, though the event was actually organized by a place we’ll be getting to later.

My favorite memory of this theater has to be The Room. I was lucky enough to attend one of the monthly screenings and I’ve long since resolved to attend another one someday. Never in my life have I had so much fun watching such a godawful movie.

Cinema 21 is a very charming theater, which makes it all the more sad that so much of its ample history has been lost to time. Nevertheless, the present management has done a great job of carving out a successful niche for it. The theater offers films that can’t be seen anywhere else in Portland and it’s supported by a very passionate fanbase. Indeed, courting the Tommy Wiseau crowd may have been the smartest thing ever done in the theater’s history.

Here’s hoping to a long and prosperous future for Cinema 21, one that hopefully includes a dedicated parking lot.

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