Back to the Future at the Whiteside

By Dave DeLuca

IMG_1794For more than half a century, the Whiteside Theatre thrilled Corvallisites with vaudeville acts, dancing, and movies. Unfortunately, time and neglect took their toll, making the building unusable by 2002. A dedicated group of local volunteers is working to bring back the magic of what was once the heart of downtown.

I sat down with Jerry Larson, chairman of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation, to discuss the progress being made on the restoration. The building has been owned by the nonprofit organization since 2008, and is well on its way to being restored to its full grandeur. Dozens of events both large and small have been hosted in the 800-seat venue at 4th Street and SW Madison Avenue, despite its transitional status. There is plenty of work yet to be done, but Larson delivered one message loud and clear: “We are open for business.”

The Whiteside Theatre Foundation was formed in 2008 to take possession of the building and its contents, which were donated outright by then owner Regal Cinemas. The express purpose of the foundation: restore the Whiteside to its former glory as Corvallis’ premier venue for larger shows.
I asked Larson about the foundation’s timeframe for the restoration project.

“There was a timeline, but we knew it was totally dependent on our ability to raise funds…you can’t do something with nothing.”

Fundraising was and is the primary challenge faced by the group. But they also had to become experts on grant writing, architecture, construction, plumbing, and dozens of other disciplines.

“It’s been a pretty amazing learning curve,” Larson said. “Plus, everybody has their day jobs.”
The foundation is made up of volunteers from all walks of life. The one thing they all share is a passion for the project. By combining their talents and recruiting help from the community at large, the foundation managed to return the Whiteside to usable status by 2011. They have raised and spent around $400,000 through grants and fundraising. They have logged over 25,000 volunteer hours to date, and hope to hire their first employee, a full time house manager, in the near future.

counterpointThey have approached the entire undertaking with methodical caution, knowing that there is little margin for error. Though the foundation would have loved to have moved faster, Larson said to have done so would have been irresponsible at best. He called their approach “working around the edges,” and it has been effective enough to open the doors and host events.

The faded wood of those front entrance doors may have caused some confusion about the status of the theater. The light color of the doors could be mistaken for plain wood boards. As in, “I thought the Whiteside was boarded up. Are they even open?”

This brings up another challenge faced in the overall project. Thanks to the historic status of the Whiteside, modifications to the outside of the building require tireless consideration and the consultation of experts. It has yet to be determined just how old the doors in question are, which will then determine whether they can be modified with glass or must be left just as they are. Larson assured me that the doors are “on the list.”

The list of things yet to do is a long one, indeed. The Whiteside needs a new lighting system. It needs to have its sound system augmented. ADA restrooms will need to be installed on the main floor. The lobby and snack bar are due for an upgrade. A historic Wurlitzer organ has yet to be reinstalled. The last big task will be a new roof.

How will the end product fit into Corvallis today? I asked Larson how he sees the grand old theater coexisting in a town with other venues. Specifically, is Corvallis big enough to support both the Whiteside and its neighbor to the east, the Majestic Theatre?

“This town isn’t big enough for a turf war,” he answered. “We’re not competitors for anybody. The Majestic has all of this great support system and rehearsal areas. It’s intimately sized. The Whiteside, with almost 800 seats, is another entity entirely. We have a big building, for a big audience, and we can put big acts in there.”

He believes the presence of both theaters will contribute to a healthy and vibrant downtown. “The more you have going on, the more of a center of gravity you build.”

What makes the members of the foundation so sure that the completed Whiteside will flourish? Larson and his colleagues are convinced that a large theater is needed in Corvallis, and they don’t need studies to have confidence that the audiences will be there. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do as far as due diligence moving forward. You can always throw projections out there, but based on what? They’re always a little bit like a Ouija board or a crystal ball.”

His confidence seems to be based at least in part on the people involved. A highlight of the project to this point was the relighting ceremony in November of 2013. Hundreds of locals crowded the sidewalks around the theater to witness the ceremonial first use of the Whiteside’s new marquee. Larson was visibly emotional at the memory of the event, and the sentiments he received from those in attendance.

“That old building really means that much to a lot of people. We have people on the board who were there when it was a theater. There are people on board who remember practically every movie they ever saw there.”

Only time will tell if the confidence and hard work of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation will translate into success. April will be an important month, either way. A professional theater designer will spend several days this month touring the theater, asking questions, and eventually giving an opinion to the board on what can and should be done moving forward. This is the moment when a committed group of volunteers will find out if their building is capable of being what they envision.