Theater will celebrate with screenings of the classic movie 'The Wizard of Oz'

The Cameo Theater celebrated its 80th anniversary in business this summer and its screenings were accordingly taken back in time this month to commemorate the occasion.GARY ALLEN - The Cameo Theater opened on Aug. 20, 1937, and featured 'Ever Since Eve' as its first film. This week the theater is playing 'The Wizard of Oz', which was released two years after it first opened.

For the past week and continuing through Thursday, the theater is showing the "Wizard of Oz." It's a fitting selection: the Cameo was just 2 years old when the classic musical was released.

The theater opened Aug. 20, 1937, featuring "Ever Since Eve" as its first film.

An unchanging landmark

The building was designed by Day Hilborn, a well-known Washington architect who began designing theaters in the 1930s. According to the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Hilborn first designed the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver, Wash. He went on to use the same Art Deco style for numerous cinemas throughout the Pacific Northwest, including the Moreland Theater in Portland and the Allmon Theater in Canby.GARY ALLEN - Cameo Theater head projectionist and ticket taker Russell Fleming awaits customers prior to a showing last week.

"It's kind of a late-stage art deco, I'm told by movie theater historians," Cameo owner Brian Francis said. "The technical name for it would be, 'moderne.' "

The Cameo opened as a competitor to the Baker Theater, which Ted Francis had purchased in the 1920s and later renamed to the Francis Theater (not to be confused with the subsequent Francis Theater, which was built later on the corner of First and College streets).

Ted Francis purchased the Cameo a few years after it opened, ending the competition. From that point on, it has remained in the Francis family.

The Cameo has remained relatively unchanged during its 80-year run. Thinking over the big events and evolutions in the theater's history, Brian Francis pointed to just a handful of turning points.

In 1953, a truck parked in front of the theater and got hooked onto its marquee. When the truck pulled away, the entire marquee came crashing down.

Filmgoers that year also had a new viewing experience, when the Cameo installed a wide, Cinemascope screen.

"Every theater had to do that to compete with television," Brian Francis explained.

In 1965, the theater brought in loge seating, in which every other row was outfitted with newer, more comfortable seats. Tickets for those spots cost more. Several years later, a new type of projector was installed, one that allowed a film to be run entirely on a single reel.

That was one of the last big changes until Ted Francis's death in 1999, when Brian Francis began running theater operations. He made some changes in the snack bar and a few equipment changes. At one point, he was running 3D movies on film with a special lens attachment.

Since then, the biggest change came in 2015, when the Cameo purchased a digital projector, joining the 99W Drive-In in adopting the new technology. The drive-in received a projector earlier after winning a national contest.

"The digital was the next big evolution," Francis said.

For its next big change, Francis said he's looking into upgrading the seating. The front half of the theater's seats date back to its construction in 1937, and the back half are 50 years old, dating to the loge seating era. Many theaters are upgrading to high-back seating, and Francis said the Cameo may follow suit.

But the theater has remained overall the same local landmark over the decades, particularly its appearance. It's unchanged enough that the city's historic preservation commission has taken an interest in securing further historic designation for the building.

Francis said he hopes the theater continues for another 80 years. Structurally, it seems feasible: when it was built, advertisements pointed to its architectural soundness. It was built to withstand fire, wind, floods and more, they said.

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