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Owner facing personal challenges, frustration over COVID mandates is hoping to see local nonprofit take over iconic theater

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY ONIKO MEHRABI
 - The downstairs main theater seats 170 and includes a stage.

For the first time in nearly 15 years, Pine Theater is up for sale.

Owner Oniko Mehrabi recently decided to sell the local landmark, which she and her then-husband, Ali, purchased in 2007.

"I am selling because of a few different things," Oniko explained. Personal health struggles have made theater ownership more challenging than it was when they purchased the theater. In addition, she has grown frustrated in dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 mandates enacted by Gov. Kate Brown.

"I feel that it's the best thing to put it into hands that can grow it and use it to its full capacity, rather than just be selfish, keep it and live in it (the theater building includes an apartment)," she said.

When the Mehrabis purchased the theater in 2007, they "totally revived it," Oniko recalls. In addition to showing movies again, they decided to add a second level and movie screen. The project, proposed in 2010, needed the City of Prineville Planning Commission to sign off on the overall height of the addition. The height limit for downtown Prineville structures, according to City code, was 35 feet, but the addition to the theater would make it about 40 feet tall. The addition was completed in 2011.

In 2013, the Mehrabis faced the challenge of movies primarily going from film to digital. To pay for the transition to showing digital versions of new movies, they mounted an ambitious campaign to raise $80,000 to purchase two digital movie projectors. They elected to sell 240 engraved horseshoes at $400 apiece that they would place in the sidewalk outside their theater doors.

About a year after the fundraiser, in 2014, the Mehrabis separated, and Ali lived in and ran the theater. That planned continued until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and movie theaters throughout the country closed.

"He did all that he could with Brown's restrictions. Brown really killed the spirit and business," Oniko said.

Since Ali needed to generate an income, he transitioned into construction and moved to the Portland area to care for an elderly family member. Oniko, consequently returned to Prineville and took over the theater, getting bills and taxes for the facility paid.

"I was very blessed to get a COIC grant and a couple little grants," she said. "I just came in and cleaned it, made sure everything was working and waited for the mandates to lift."

The theater reopened in mid-May, and Oniko focused on showing a new movie each week. In order to do so, she is showing movies "off of the break," four weeks after their initial release.

"At least then, I have a chance to fight against online streaming," she said.

Oniko explained that when new movies are released, they go to first-run theaters and streaming services immediately. About four weeks later, some of the streaming services and first-run theaters stop showing the movies and move onto newer ones.

"So, Prineville gets a new movie every week."

As mask mandates returned recently, Oniko decided that the health challenges and constant restrictions were too much to bear. So, she decided to sell the theater in hopes that a new owner can take it, operate it and improve it. She would like to see a nonprofit or public entity purchase and run the theater.

"This building needs to be a 501c3, so it can always be here for the people of Prineville," she said. "The people of Prineville have proven how important the theater is to them. There is just so much more that this place could do. It needs a team."

And until that sale is final, Oniko plans to keep showing movies. And she intends to show them free of the state mandates, although not at the risk of people's safety. She stressed that the theater has 6,000 square feet of space for 170 seats, enabling people to social distance.

"We use the cleaning products that were approved, and I also ionize the air every night," she said. "I care about their health."


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