This coming Saturday, 6/24, McMenamins Mission Theater will celebrate the building’s 105th and the pub’s 30th anniversaries. Below is a brief primer of this storied spot, with a focus on the short-lived but significant Heart Theatre. Our historian Tim Hills, Portland actor Sam Mowry and former Oregonian theater critic Bob Hicks will share the stage, beginning at 7 p.m. to discuss the theater troupe’s near year-long residence within these walls.
The fortress-like building at the corner of what is today known as NW 17th and Glisan Street in Portland was built by the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church in 1912, where they held services for more than 40 years.
In 1954, the place became a longshoreman’s hall. The new tenants were dockworkers, a decidedly less pious group than the church members, who had relocated to a modern house of worship on the east side of the river. The transfer from evangelical church to longshoreman meeting hall brought some jarring adjustments: religious symbols were pulled down, pews and pulpit removed, the floor overlaid with linoleum. The place was suddenly introduced to words and notions never before uttered within its walls. In 1982, the union moved out of the old church building, and the place became a storage warehouse called the Columbia River Building.
A few years later, actor Sam Mowry (today, more commonly known by McMenamins fans as the force behind the superb Willamette Radio Workshop) was walking by the old brick building and saw that it was for sale. He and a fellow actor, Mel Fletcher, “scrambled together all year long to put together a financial deal for [the] old meeting hall.” Eventually, after much negotiation, the building was sold to Mowry and Fletcher – and Heart Theatre was born. The year was 1985.
Heart Theatre’s first performance was The Life of Edward the Second of England, a weighty work by playwright Bertold Brecht. The audience was only seated in the sweeping balcony area, to allow the actors to use the first floor as their stage.
Mowry, who had already won local awards for his acting with other troupes, received rave reviews in the title role (see image). “His resonant voice, commanding appearance, kingly charisma and ability to grow old and feeble as the part demands . . . would make this a play to remember, even if all the other characters were duds,” wrote The Oregonian.
That same review was less than glowing in reference to the theater itself: “It obviously needs more attention, such as carpeting, a bit of paint to spruce up the entrance, signs for the men’s and women’s restrooms.” Still, all reviews acknowledged the potential of the fledgling theatre group in their historic space.
But by August 1986, the board of Heart Theatre acknowledged that attendance had never quite hit their intended goals. Members of the board “appeared unexpectedly” one night at the theater to inform the actors, who were in the midst of rehearsing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that the doors would be closing – temporarily, they hoped. Mowry told the theater critic of The Oregonian, “We are in complete shock. We had no inkling that closure was contemplated.” The subsequent Oregonian article was printed under the headline: “Heart Closes Its Doors; ‘MacBeth’ Seeks Home.” Despite some attempts (or suggestions) at fundraising, Heart Theatre closed up operations for good. MacBeth never found its home with us. Just a few months afterwards, in 1987, the short-lived Heart was reimagined as McMenamins’ first theater-pub.
However, there is talk that on Saturday, June 24, 2017, more than three decades later, Mowry and a handful of actors may finally get closure – they may just pull together a scene or two from the Bard’s greatest tragedy for our anniversary party, making Portland history at what is today known as the Mission Theater.
Until then, a word from Shakespeare: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”