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Tebbetts’ Oriental Theatre boasted the largest neon theater sign in the world.

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Walter Tebbetts was one of the most prominent names in Portland Theater history. He was born in Beatrice, Nebraska on November 28, 1885. After finishing school in Beatrice, he became a teacher there. Tebbetts came to Portland in 1909. Two years later, in 1911, he began operating the old Empire Theater at Grand and Hawthorne. These were the good old five and ten days, when a good show was a four-reeler–a two-reel feature, a one-reel comedy and a one-reel short.

 

 

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Tebbetts built his first theater in Portland in 1913 and named it the Alhambra. Later, the name was changed to the Mount Tabor Theater. In 1923, Tebbetts built the Laurelhurst Theater, then he built the ornate Hollywood Theater in 1926. Tebbetts had owned, managed or built twelve moving picture theaters in Portland, including the Empire, the New Grand, the Alhambra, the Montavilla, the State, the Highway, the Laurelhurst, the Lombard, the Crest, the Roseway and the Hollywood.

After building the Hollywood Theater, Walter Tebbetts took a trip abroad and he conceived the idea of building a theatre fashioned after and decorated and furnished like the temples of the Orient. Upon his return, Tebbetts conferred with George Weatherly regarding such a theatre to be built adjoining a twelve-story office building near the east end of the Morrison Bridge. In 1927, Weatherly opened his 12-story Weatherly Building and the “veritable Temple of East India,” the Oriental Theatre, considered a masterpiece in theatrical architecture. Tebbetts was the owner and manager of this palatial picture palace.

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One of Portland’s most ornate theaters, Walter Tebbetts’ Oriental Theatre at Grand and Morrison streets.

Opening with a Grand Gala on Saturday December 31, 1927, The Oriental Theatre seated 2,750 patrons and it was Portland’s largest. There were 2,400 lights in the massive dome and a $50,000 Wurlitzer Orchestra Organ was installed with an ascending organ platform. The Oriental had the only ascending orchestra platform in Oregon. It had the largest projection room on the Pacific Coast with a battery of nine machines and all curtains and lights were operated from the projection room. The Oriental was the only theater in the Northwest to have a children’s Circus Room. The Theatre had an authentic Indian Temple Atmosphere.

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The lobby of the Oriental Theatre which was one of the most ornate theaters ever built.

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The interior was adorned with statues of Buddha, sacred elephants, and dancing girls.

 

Exterior of the Oriental Theatre.

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Title page from Opening Gala Program from December 31, 1927.

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One of many statues of Buddha.

View of the stage and the main floor from the balcony.

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The Stage and the $50,000 Wurlitzer Organ at The Oriental.

Walter Tebbetts became a Walkathon Promoter, holding a Dance Marathon at Atlantic City in 1932. Early in 1933, he held a show at Camden, New Jersey, using one of the hangars at Central Airport. Later, on September 9, 1933 Tebbetts held a show at The Auditorium at Atlantic City. Tebbetts hired Red Skelton as a youthful comic MC. Paducah, Kentucky became the site of another show that Tebbetts opened on January 16. It was followed by another show at Atlanta’s Southeast Fair Grounds on January 23, 1934.

Tebbetts opened at Dreamland Park Ballroom in Newark, New Jersey on July 31, 1934. On September 8, 1934, Tebbetts opened a Walk-a-Derby at Trenton, New Jersey. Then on October 26, Tebbetts opened at Grand Rapids, Michigan, He opened a show at the Olympic Park Ballroom in Irvington, New Jersey on January 29, 1935 and again on April 6. Later that year, on October 8, Walter Tebbetts opened a show at Camden, New Jersey.

After the Walkathons began to loose their popularity, Tebbetts returned to Portland to manage his theater interests. He remained active until his death in January 1962.

Fixtures from The Oriental Theatre were auctioned off in 1969 and sadly, the building was demolished soon thereafter. To this day a surface parking lot remains in its place. Another landmark lost to apathy?

 

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Dedicated to the memory of Portland native and historian Frank Schlick.

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Last updated 06-03-11

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