Popcorn and hope - to-go
Gresham's historic movie theater in the heart of downtown has spent the months during a global pandemic dedicated to bolstering the community's home movie night experience while staying afloat in unprecedented times.
Three times a week, a line of cars snakes along Powell Boulevard, with folks waiting their turn to purchase freshly popped corn from Mt. Hood Theater as well as a bevy of other treats, movie posters, and T-shirts. The drive-thru pickup is handled by employees wearing masks and practicing good social distancing.
"People in Gresham love that theater, its overwhelming the support we get from our customers," said Leah Tillotson, who owns the theater alongside her husband, Lance. "Our customers are literally saving the theater — no way we would have made it five months being closed without them."
The pandemic hit the Gresham theater hard. Every summer they've hosted a kids' matinee program, which usually brings in hundreds of excited children and their parents to watch the latest films from Disney, Pixar and others.
On March 23, when Gov. Kate Brown issued a stay-at-home executive order due to COVID-19, there was a queue of people waiting to get into the theater.
"We had this huge line of families outside the theater we had to go tell we couldn't open," Leah said. "When you don't know what the future holds, there is a lot of stress and disappointment."
Leah, who lives with her family in St. Helens, had headaches around closing both the Mt. Hood Theater and her vintage movie palace in St. Helens. There were pressing bills and no firm timeline for a reopening. She decided on a whim to get out of the house and be active.
"I knew I had to get my head on straight — I wanted to go serve people," she said.
Leah posted on Facebook that the St. Helens theater would be selling popcorn via a drive-up line. It was a way for her to connect with her customers. The social media post quickly blew up with hundreds of shares and nearly as many people driving past the theater to purchase popcorn.
With the unplanned success of that event, the Tillotsons brought the drive-up concept to Gresham, at first just one night a week.
"We had crazy lines at the theater, and often our popper couldn't keep up," Leah said. "It would sometimes take an hour for a customer to make it through the line in the beginning, because we were so overwhelmed by the support."
What initially was a quick solution became the answer for the theater to survive. The busiest night at the theater was the sale of 900 buckets of popcorn.
The theater, 401 E. Powell Boulevard, is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings for drive-up sales. It's more than just standard popcorn, though, that remains the best seller. The theater offers Oreo and cheddar flavored gourmet popcorn, ice cream, candy, hot fudge sundaes, lemonade slush puppies, T-shirts and movie posters.
"There have been days that have been tough for me and my family — but when you get bad news you go get popcorn and ice cream," Leah said.
Mt. Hood Theater has long been the centerpiece of downtown Gresham.
The theater — initially known simply as Hood Theater — first opened on June 2, 1950, to a showing of the brand new Civil War film, "The Eagle and the Hawk."
The enormous auditorium was a big draw for the community — boasting air conditioning for the 800 people who could pile in every day to gaze at the silver screen. Admission was only 50 cents for adults, and it was the hub of all Gresham teen social activities in the 50s.
The current owners purchased the theater in 1999, drawing on their experience running a vintage movie palace in St. Helens. From the beginning, their goal was to preserve the atmosphere that makes the historic theater so beloved within the community.
The Tillotsons brought in bigger, and more comfy, seats and a cozy little coffee shop tucked into the lobby. They put in a new marquee when they bought the theater, and replaced the carpeting, roof and air conditioning. They also upgraded the sound and projection quality of the 67-year-old theater.
The pandemic, however, isn't the first time the community has rallied around the theater.
A few years back, the $120,000 projector failed in the midst of a busy summer highlighted by massive blockbusters with the latest Star Wars flick and The Avengers. The theater was completely dead in the water as a replacement was ordered, and the Tillotsons feared it would be the end of their business.
But everyone was understanding and supportive, and the historic theater made it through.
"When we serve our customers, they lift us back up," Leah said.
Hope and the silver screen
The employees in Gresham have been a huge help.
At first, the drive-up sales were handled solely by the Tillotson family, but they quickly became overwhelmed by the number of customers.
"I called my staff and said, 'If you feel safe, can you help us?'" Leah said. "The staff told me it is nice to have something to do and be around people."
The theater has been dedicated to ensuring staff feel comfortable, allowing them to pull out of a shift at any time if they have health concerns.
"We are covering a lot of our bills, but not all of them," Leah said.
There is hope on the horizon. The St. Helens theater has begun showing films because it is situated in Columbia County, which is in Phase 2 of reopening. If Multnomah County reaches the same place, Mt. Hood Theater will reopen with socially-distanced showings.
They are also making investments for the future. A longtime dream, ever since the couple purchased the theater, has been to complete a new paint job to help the building pop and bring brightness into the community. Despite the pandemic, they are finally moving forward on the paint project.
"We have hope things will end up ok in the end," Leah said.
Home movie night?
Who: The Mt. Hood Theater
Where: 401 E. Powell Blvd., Gresham
When: 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, drive-up service only
Purchase popcorn, gourmet popcorn, ice cream, frozen treats, movie posters, gift cards and more.
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