The Tower Theatre’s Transition from 1940 to 2004

The Tower Theatre’s history is a rocky one. What started as a movie theatre in the growing mill town of 1940, fell into disrepair decades later, forcing the doors to close. New life was to come however and through the efforts of a capitol campaign, millions were raised for the restoration of the iconic piece of Bend’s cultural history.  Story by Renee Patrick

Movies, Movies, Movies

oldtownMovie fever came to the high desert in 1940 when the Tower Theatre was first completed. Built in only three months, the original construction included imported travertine marble from Italy, a women’s lounge on the mezzanine floor embellished with knotty pine and a seating capacity of 998. The Tower rose 78 feet above the street and cast a glow with its 1,200 feet of neon tubes of green and gold.


The popular movie Four Wives opened the doors to the first movie-goers and ushered in an era of first-run shows ranging from Disney cartoons to news, shorts and feature films. Primarily a cinema, the performing arts took to the stage from time to time and in 1948 the Theatre added a weekly amateur hour, fashion shows, variety shows and even a performance by the General Platoff Don Cossack chorus from Russia.



The Theatre couldn’t keep pace when multi-screen theatres came to the high desert, and when the owners, a large movie theatre chain, choose not to invest in any up-keep or renovation, the doors closed. A partnership came forward in 1994 and purchased the Theatre. Win and Laurel Francis, Michael and Pat Forman, and Bruce and Sandi Hinchliffe wanted to redevelop the space for retail and office use.


“We thought it would be better for commercial use,” Win Francis recalled, “Other people thought it could be a performing arts theatre…ultimately it was the best use for the community, not necessarily financially!” The partnership quickly became invested in the idea of a public theatre when the idea was presented, and with the goal of gauging the demand for a theatre, gave the Regional Arts Council of Central Oregon a discounted lease to operate as a multi-purpose venue.

Thousands of people visited the Tower Theatre over the next two years despite continued disrepair and lack of heat. In 1995 the City of Bend purchased the building and agreed to hold the property until a private non-profit organization could purchase, restore and operate the Theatre, but once again deterioration forced the doors to close in 1996 until the changes could be made.

Community Effort
With the enthusiasm of the previous two years of programming, it was clear Bend wanted a theatre. Gary Capps, executive director of Bend’s Chamber of Commerce, banded a small group of volunteers together to work on a fundraising campaign which grew into 30 dedicate residents to begin the surmountable task of bringing new life to the Theatre.

In 1997 the City challenged the group to generate $300,000 in cash and in-kind pledges for support of renovation efforts, it was there the Tower Theatre Foundation was formed as a non-profit and successfully presented the City with $362,590 only a month later.

The Return of the Tower
completedtowerLaunched in 1999, Encore! The Return of the Tower Theatre capitol campaign was created in order to secure funds to purchase, renovate, endow and operate the Theatre. When it became clear that the renovation project was larger than just restoring utility to the building, the campaign goal became $4.2 million and by 2001 the building was purchased from the City of Bend.


Clella Thomas, who co-chaired the Encore campaign with Pamela Hulse Andrews, recalled, “ I hoped that renovating the 1940’s Tower Theatre would not only preserve a bit of Bend’s past, but would provide Central Oregon with a badly needed, attractive, comfortable gathering place for cultural events, entertainment, meetings, lectures, films, educational activities, non-profit fundraisers, etc.”


“There were three goals,” Francis shared, “One, to create a community performing arts theatre that did everything; two, saving an icon, it was a part of Bend that needed to be taken care of and three, at that time downtown was hurting, Bend needed a nighttime venue.”


The renovation designs were headed by DKA Architecture and Design P.C and also included Candela Theatre consultants and B.R.C. Acoustics of Seattle, Interface Engineering of Salem, W&H Pacific as well as Foundation board members including interior designers, event promoters and community leaders.


Construction began in 2002 by  Kirby Nagelhout Construction and included the expansion of the interior space from 10,432 to 13,630 square feet, an expanded basement for an orchestra pit with a motorized sypra lift, new box seats, an expanded lobby area, high quality sound and lighting equipment, a video projection system and a full 35mm film projection system.

The Foundation wanted to restore much of the original design, while enhancing the art deco style. Interior Designer Charlene Dempsey selected the palate: terracotta, gold, yellow and purple on the interior and yellow, brown and burgundy on the outside. Local artist David Kinker was commissioned to paint murals in the restrooms and with his brushes created three-dimensional art deco murals.

The renovation was truly a community effort, and after the culmination of 10 years of work, the Tower Theatre opened the doors again on January 30, 2004. “Of all the projects I’ve had the blessing of being part of since moving here in the late 1970s, restoring the Tower Theater remains the one of which I am  most proud,” said Tom DeWolf, co-chair of the Tower Theatre Encore Campaign. “The group of people that made it happen worked so hard for so many years. I’m forever blessed by being able to work with them to realize this dream.”

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