When it opened in 1948, inside a converted furniture building on Dallas’ Southeast Mill Street, the Rio Theater brought Hollywood glitz and glamour to the small Willamette Valley town.
More than 70 years later, the renamed Dallas Cinema could be headed for a place in national history.
Members of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation voted in late June to nominate the cinema to the National Register of Historic Places. If approved by the National Park Service, the theater building could become one of thousands of historic landmarks across the country.
Committee members called the building a “time capsule” preserving a symbol of a bygone era when going to the movies was a fancy affair.
“When I look at the photographs of the building as it is today, it’s a time capsule,” said committee chairman Stephen Dow Beckham of Lake Oswego during a June 24 meeting to nominate buildings and sites to the national register. “When I see the building design, and the ticket booth out front, there is an element of being a statement from a time past that is well preserved in Dallas, Oregon.”
The theater’s nomination was forwarded to the National Park Service, which will determine if it meets national register criteria. That process could take several months. Once approved, the building could be eligible for federal preservation grants and some tax breaks.
A theater conversion
Rebecca Ziegler of Adaptive Preservation LLC in Albany, who wrote a 63-page national register nomination report, said the New Rio Theater/Dallas Cinema is one of the state’s longest continuously operated movie theaters. The theater was nominated because of its significance to the community between 1948 and 1953, when the Motor Vu Drive-in opened and siphoned much of the downtown theater’s business. It’s also one of the few “conversion” theaters (those in buildings originally meant for some other business) still operating in the state.
The New Rio Theater opened in 1948 in the Crider Building, owned by C.L. Crider, which was constructed in the 1890s as a furniture store, with a recessed storefront and large display windows, Ziegler wrote. The Sterling Furniture Store operated there until 1940, when it moved to another location.
In the 1930s, a concrete storage building was added to the back. That building was remodeled in 1941, when Crider turned it into the Rio Theater. It was the city’s second movie theater. The Majestic Theater on Main Street was built in 1910 to show silent movies, Ziegler wrote.
Until 1945, the Rio Theater showed second-run movies. When the Majestic Theater was damaged by a fire in spring 1945, the owners decided against rebuilding, leaving the Rio as the only movie house in town.
In 1948, Ziegler wrote, the Rio Theater remodeled the old furniture store, converting it to a nearly 300-seat theater with a marquee and a glass ticket booth out front.
The New Rio Theater opened Dec. 28, 1948, with fanfare, according to Ziegler. People lined up down the block waiting to see “Rachel and the Stranger,” starring Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum.
‘Constant source of entertainment’
A couple years later, the theater was hit by mishaps and problems. In 1951, a fire in the building’s second-floor apartments caused about $30,000 damage to the building, Ziegler wrote. The building changed owners four times in nearly a decade. When the Motor Vu Drive-in opened in 1953, the Rio saw a big drop in business as people flocked to drive-ins, which were popular.
In the mid-1950s, when television sets became a staple in most homes, Ziegler wrote, the theater’s business further declined.
The theater was sold in 1955, sold again in 1956 and sold a third time in 1959 to Don Wernli, who used to manage the Rio Theater. In 1979, Wernli sold the Rio to Portland theater owner Tom Moyer, who changed the name to the Fox Theater.
In 1985, Moyer sold the building to Ron Burch. In 2007, Salem businessman Jeff Mexico purchased the theater, remodeled the auditorium to include 216 seats, improved the projection system and renamed it the Dallas Cinema, Ziegler wrote.
“The Dallas Cinema has been a constant source of entertainment and consistently served thousands of moviegoers in the past seven decades, thus, becoming a true landmark for the community,” Ziegler wrote in the nomination report.
She said the “complicated building” houses “one of the last operating historic theaters in Oregon’s Mid-Willamette Valley and the only remaining historic theater in Polk County.”
“The character and the integrity of building has been altered from its 1890s date, but that only adds to the unique history of this building as a conversion theater and does not take away from its period of significance as a recreation and entertainment hub for the Dallas community,” Ziegler wrote. “It is the only historic conversion theater in all of Polk County, and one of the longest continual operating movie theaters in the state of Oregon.”