Oregon Trails: Holly Theatre

By Ron Brown

MEDFORD, Ore. — Saturday, will be the lighting ceremony for the new replica marquee and banner sign on the front of the historic Holly Theatre in downtown Medford.

When the Holly first opened back in 1930, it was a landmark occasion and now that plans are underway to restore the theatre, the Oregon Trails takes a look at the Holly’s place in Southern Oregon entertainment history.

For more than a hundred years, the movies have been a big part of the entertainment scene of Southern Oregon. The first theatre in Medford was the Bijou, in 1908. It was one of several small movie houses showing the silent flickers of the day and sometimes other entertainment.

“The Star Theatre opened up the following year doors down from the ISIS, and it would show photo plays, or movies and vaudeville,” Former SOHS Archivist William Alley describes, “And what they’d generally do is they’d start in the morning and play all day long, and you could come and go as you pleased. It was kind of a continuous performance.”

Admission was usually a dime for adults and a nickel for kids at first. By the Depression, it was up to a quarter for adults and a dime for kids. By the ’20’s, the little theatres were gone, the Page Theatre along Bear Creek burned down, and the Craterian downtown was the biggest and best Medford had to offer.

“I think the Page was even nicer than the Craterian. It was larger and little more elaborate. Uh, it was older and wasn’t as well equipped as the Craterian was, but had it not burned, I’m sure it would have been upgraded with the modern Simplex projectors,” says Alley.

The Craterian replaced the burned page theatre in status, but it was the holly that was the showstopper. The Holly was the dream project of newspaper publisher Earl Fehl and was built in 1930; and much anticipated by local residents.

“This was sort of the pinnacle of the movie hey-day in Medford,” says Restoration Consultant George Kramer, “It was the biggest theatre Medford ever saw, by quite a lot! It sat 1,200 people when it first opened. And all of the technology, by the time this theatre opened, had been perfected. So, this was the theatre that was built for talking pictures, rather than one that had to be converted for pictures.”

When it opened, the Mail Tribune ran pages of ads from area businesses congratulating Fehl and his partners on their success. At the same time, the other theatres in town announced special movie showings at the same time, to counter the hoopla surrounding the Holly’s opening.

“They opened it up with the ‘Holly Follies.’ And local personalities put on a big show, and there was a nice insert in the local paper thanking everybody that worked on it. Frank Clark was the architect. Earl Fehl himself was the contractor that was in charge of it. There were lots of reports in the local papers about the ‘walls are going’ up’, ‘the 1200 seats have arrived’, ‘The artists that are painting the inside from Seattle are here.’ And a bunch of commentary on the 33 foot tall neon pylon. The largest sign between Portland and San Francisco,” Kramer describes.

It’s that big neon Holly sign and the marquee that are the focus of attention now as the JPR foundation works to build support for a restoration project to bring the Holly back to it’s glory of 80 years ago.

“We have almost all the pieces of the original interior. We have pretty good photographic records enough to do the sign and the marquee, and good examples of the, all the original treatment. But the storefronts were never changed. They changed out the doors, but the windows and the brick was painted, but it was there. So, really a lot of this has been taking care of deferred maintenance for the last 80 years,” Kramer says.

There was a remodeling done in the 1960’s that removed the old signage out front and somewhat modernized the facade and interior. But then the theatre closed again in 1986, and only recently has the JPR Foundation decided to take it over to make it a showcase for the arts in the Rogue Valley.

“The facade is something you could do in 3 or 4 months. And we wanted people to really see the standard of care and the brilliance of the building before we start asking for help restoring the interior, which will take about 2 years work,” says Ron Kramer, with the JPR Foundation.

“Rarely do we get to build something like the Holly. Bring it back to what it was in 1930. It’s a pretty exciting project for us,” says Contractor David Hammonds.

The restoration of the facade of the old Holly theatre is really only the first stage. But it’s certainly a dramatic one and once the lighting is up, it’s hoped to spark a light among donors to be able to raise the money in order finish the entire project inside. Almost every town in our area had at least one movie house. Here is a rundown of those we know of.

The grand re-lighting ceremony for the holly theatre’s exterior facade is scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday at the corner of 6th and Holly Streets. The event is sponsored by the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, which provided a $100,000 grant toward the facade restoration project. It’s also a kickoff for fundraising to complete the interior restoration.