Editor’s note: a eagle-eyed reader notice an error in our research. Carole Lombard couldn’t have sent owners of The Academy Theater a congratulatory telegram since she had already died. There’s a bit more explanation where the error first appeared in the story. We also updated a description of the theater’s lobby.
We very much appreciate reader feedback.
By PATRICIA SANDERS
Academy Theater marquee in its renovated state.
Photo by Julio Brown
Exciting news! After months of being shuttered, The Academy Theater, a Montavilla landmark, will reopen soon. July 16 is the target date, says co-owner and manager, Heyward Stewart.
The Academy opened in 1948 and was then the most modern building on SE Stark Street’s commercial blocks.
How it began and how it continued as a structure for over 70 years— 42 of those as a movie theater— is a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns.
How the Academy Theater began
The idea for the theater started with Fred Teeny (1914 – 1979) and his wife Lillian (1920 – 2009). Fred came from an entrepreneurial Lebanese family. Collectively in Portland and nearby, several members of the family owned a variety of businesses.
Fred’s father Joseph Abraham Teeny emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1906. He found his way to Portland, where he opened a dry goods store on Foster Road. In the 1930s, his son Fred opened his own dry goods store at the southwest corner of Stark and SE 80th Avenue (where the
Tinder Tinker Tavern is today, but in a new building).
By the mid-1940s, Fred and Lillian wanted to start a new business, a movie theater. They would follow the model of several other theaters with a theater-storefront complex to be constructed at the other end of the block where they had their dry goods store.
They were ready for a new venture, and the timing must have seemed right. World War Two was over, so the restrictions on non-war-related construction had been lifted. And movie theater attendance was rising steadily, with a new box-office high in 1946. Surely Montavilla could support a second theater to supplement the Granada on NE Glisan.
Fred Teeny decided to hire Portland architect James William De Young (1885 – 1965). A sound choice. De Young had been in business in Portland for over 30 years. He had already designed several movie theaters. Teeny must have wanted something modern, in contrast to the older, exotic style of the Granada. And De Young was known for keeping up with modern architectural trends.
So he gave the Teenys a theater in the architectural style called Streamline Moderne. When it appeared, it must have shocked Montavillans who were used to the old-fashioned storefronts that lined Stark.
This circa 1948 photo shows the storefronts of Stark Street. From left to right, we see the future home of the Montavilla Branch Post Office, Montavilla Camera and Record Shop, Teeny’s Shoes, Fuller Wallpaper & Paint, and Gardner’s Restaurant.
Photo courtesy of the Academy Theater
Streamline Moderne is known for its smooth, curving lines inspired by streamlining in transport design. You can see this in the rounded shapes of the marquee, the smokestack-like cylinder of the entrance and the curving lines of the lobby— all still visible today.
De Young had the Academy plans ready by September 1946, but building was delayed until Fred Teeny could get a permit. His first permit was denied because after the war the US government prioritized construction.
Once it was issued in January 1947, the contractors Knott, Rogers, and Dunbar could proceed. The finished theater featured an auditorium capable of seating over 600, sloping floors, a nursery for childcare, and air conditioning. And for convenience, it had a large parking lot in back.
The Teenys did not operate the Academy until many years later. Initially they leased it to Al Myers (1909 – 1979), owner of the Granada Theatre on Glisan. Al and his wife Polly (1920 – 1996) managed both theaters until the late 1950s.
Why name it the Academy? The answer is simple and practical. Lillian Teeny said she chose it so it would come first in theater listings.
The Academy opened on April 30, 1948 with a 1947 box-office hit, “Tycoon”, starring John Wayne.
Poster for “Tycoon,” starring John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, and Laraine Day. Like many neighborhood movie theaters, the Academy showed second-run movies.
Photo source: Wikipedia
When the Academy opened, movie stars Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, and
Carole Lombard sent Al congratulatory telegrams.
Photo courtesy of the Academy Theater
Polly and Al Myers in the Academy lobby. The fountain next to Al was rediscovered in the restoration process.
Photo courtesy of Academy Theater (Photo donated by Polly Myers’ son, Vern Kjargaard.)
In May, 1949, Janet Gaynor showed up at the Academy for a special re-screening of “A Star is Born.” She was an Academy Award nominee for this film in 1937. This poster advertises the 1946 re-release of “A Star Is Born”.
In 1958, the Teenys took over management of the Academy. At this time, they modernized the theater, adding stereophonic sound and improving the wide, curved screen. Fred and Lillian Teeny continued to manage the theater until 1965. Their children Sharon (1940 – 2014) and Jim (born 1945) helped too, when they were old enough.
The Teeny family, left to right: Sharon, Jim, Fred and Lillian.
Photo courtesy of Jim Teeny
In 1965, big-band leader, Van Armitage (1917 – 1994) leased and managed the Academy. When the theater did not do well, Jim Teeny managed with help from his mother.
Competition: the Eastgate Cinema
The Teenys were afraid the business might not survive when the Eastgate Cinema opened in Montavilla in 1966. Located at SE 82nd Avenue and Harrison Street, the Eastgate was only 1.4 miles from the Academy. The Eastgate was bigger, more luxurious, with the latest cinema technology.
It was part of boxing-champion Tom Moyer‘s (1919 – 2014) movie theater empire and Portland’s first multiplex. On opening, there was one building with two auditoriums. A second building was added with a single screen. Together the three auditoriums could seat 2,200. The Eastgate continued until 2001 and today the buildings house the Slavic Church Emmanual.
But the Academy stayed in business for several more years. It had the advantage of cheaper second-run and sometimes third-run movies. The Eastgate showed more expensive, first-run movies.
Jim Teeny found ways to increase profits. He reduced the open days from daily to weekends. Sunday were slow, so he invented Portland’s first “dollar night” movies— $1 for a double feature and cartoon plus unlimited free Boyd’s coffee. At one point, Jim booked a lot of Clint Eastwood movies and the Academy became known as the “Clint Eastwood house” of Portland.
Jim stopped managing the Academy in 1972, to devote himself exclusively to his fly fishing business, and Fred and Lillian Teeny sold it to Warren Stanley “Sam” Crawford, who started Nickel Ads in 1967. For a couple of years, the Academy continued as a theater. Movie ads appeared in local papers through December 1974. The Academy also had a short history as a concert venue.
Photo of the Jr. Cadillac band, which performed at the Academy in September 1973. Jr. Cadillac is still going after 50 years.
Photo courtesy of Jr. Cadillac
Nickel Ads moves in
Sometime after 1974, Sam Crawford remodeled the Academy, gutting the auditorium to make space for his newspaper’s printing press. Andrew Hessel, general manager of Nickel Ads from about 1981 until 1999, remembers Nickel Ads as a thriving business.
The Academy Reborn
When Nickel Ads relocated around 2001, the theater became available for new development. Fortunately, Ty DuPuis, owner of the Flying Pie Pizzeria, bought it in 2002, with plans to renovated the theater.
In 2004, DuPuis partnered with Heyward and Julie Stewart to turn the Academy into a theater-pub, a model that has saved many a neighborhood theater. A team of architects, contractors, builders and designers assisted with the renovation.
Stephanie Brown, a Portland interior designer, helped restore the theater as close as possible to its original Streamline Moderne style. The restoration also had to accommodate the pub operation and current standards of comfort, convenience and safety; all on a limited budget.
It was a tricky process. The building had been remodeled by Nickel Ads. There were questions about what the theater originally looked like. Yes, portions of the entrance and lobby remained, but the auditorium was a mystery. And there were only a few old photographs to guide the restoration.
The auditorium before renovation. It originally seated over 600 people.
Photo courtesy of Academy Theater
In the remodel, the old auditorium was broken up into three small theaters. The owners wanted modern, comfortable seating and tables for food and beverages. Although the color scheme in the three theater spaces is somewhat modern, colors elsewhere in the Academy are historically sensitive, just a little brighter, according to designer Stephanie Brown.
Photo courtesy of Academy Theater
Left: Lobby after asbestos abatement and before the HVAC was installed.
Photo courtesy of Academy Theater
Right: Lobby after remodeling. The curved shapes of the walls and the recessed ceiling well remained from the original theaterand were restored.
Photo by Julio Brown
Left: Academy Theater building as Nickel Ads. The rock facing was removed during the renovation.
Right: The restored Academy Theater. Instead of its original light color, the exterior was painted a deep blue based on Streamline Moderne Greyhound bus terminals. The curving lines and porthole shapes are typical Streamline Modern features and follow the original Academy design. The marquee was restored to its original look down to the curvilinear font of the name.
Both photos courtesy of Academy Theater
The renovation of the Academy was so successful it won a Preservation in Action Award from the Architectural Heritage Center / Bosco-Milligan Foundation. This went to buildings that demonstrated the cultural, historic, and economic value of historic preservation.
The renovated Academy opened on March 11, 2006 to a sold-out crowd. The line stretched around the block an hour before opening. “Tycoon”, which opened the Academy in 1948, was shown in one of the new auditoriums.
The Academy became a Montavilla favorite. Its popularity was proven in 2013 when Hollywood decided to go digital— and theaters had to adapt or die. The new digital projectors were expensive, but fortunately, a crowdsourcing campaign raised nearly $49,000. The Academy stayed in business.
Given the run-down condition of this commercial section of Stark in the early 2000s, renovating the Academy was a daring move. But it joined a few other bold businesses— YaHala, the Flying Pie, and the Bipartisan Café— that eventually led to the revival of Stark Street, helping to make it the vibrant place it is today.
The latest addition to the building has nothing to do with renovation, but with innovation. In 2015, Seattle artist Olivia Knapp painted a mural on the west exterior wall, the very wall Jim Teeny had to paint each year as part of his yearly task of repainting the theater. In my opinion, the eye-catching mural adds to momentum of Stark Street vibrancy.
Olivia Knapp, “Other Hand,” mural, located on the west exterior wall of the Academy Theater.
Photo by Thomas Tilton
For this article, I am grateful to the following people for the information shared with me for this article: Heyward Stewart, co-owner and manager of the Academy; Jim Teeny, son of the original owner of the Academy; Stephanie Brown, interior designer who helped with the Academy restoration; and Andrew Hessel, general manager of Nickel Ads from about 1981 to 1999.
Previous “Montavilla Memories” articles on Montavilla theaters:
Montavilla movie theaters, part one: The Silent Film Era
Montavilla movie theaters, part one: a postscript
Montavilla movie theaters, part two: The Granada
For further reading:
See this excellent article about the remodeling by Inara Verzemnieks: “Trickle up effect tips the momentum on Stark Street” in The Oregonian, April 6, 2006.
An interview with interior designer Stephanie Brown
On the campaign to raise money for digital projectors see: “A campaign to save the Academy Theater (and all the independents),” Brian Libby in Portland Architecture.
A time-lapse video of the creation of Olivia Knapp’s “Other Hand” on the west exterior wall of the Academy
Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history?
Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at email@example.com.
Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.
Great article but there’s a typo. It’s The Tinker Tavern not The Tinder Tavern.
Thanks for reading and for the feedback! The name is now fixed.
These historical emails are some of my favorites to receive from Village Portland. Keep ‘em coming! You are amazing.
These historical posts are my favorites to come out of Village Portland. You are amazing. Keep ‘em coming!