RAYMOND, Wash. — During the 1920s, cities and small towns across the nation saw the construction of motion picture palaces. The fanciful structures seemingly transported their customers from an everyday existence to an exotic locale. Raymond has such a structure.
In 1928, Seattle architect William R. Grant designed an eclectic theater for local businessman, A. G. Basil. The building blended Spanish and Venetian details, starkly contrasting Raymond’s working-class roots. Thoroughly modern in its film and sound equipment, the first-rate theater symbolized a faith in Raymond’s future. The Raymond Herald proclaimed it a “daring public enterprise.”
The theater operated continuously for nearly 60 years.
In the 1980s, the theater fell on hard times. It’s doors closed. Water poured through a leaking roof. “It was horrifying,” recalled Anne Steel, the theater’s manager. In 1988, the community rallied to secure $1 million in state and local grants for the theater’s rehabilitation. Four years later, the theater re-opened but under the ownership of the City of Raymond.
Now 25 years later, the theater needs additional care in a challenging economy. “Although the building remains open, we can’t generate income equal to the costs of maintaining it,” said Steel.
She said the list of projects is long; they take on one project at a time. “We prioritize what is the most detrimental to overall function to the building,” continued Steel. “Right now, we need a new furnace. We can’t get people in if it’s cold.”
A stack of blankets is readily available for customers. “We bring blankets in from home so that people can be comfortable.”
“We generally can’t get grants because we are city owned,” explained Steel. Instead, the theater relies largely on individuals and businesses for support. There is an exception, however. The Leslie V. and Stella J. Raymond Foundation — whose mission supports civic and youth organizations within Raymond — has been a godsend. “We always apply and they never turn us down,” said Steel. The foundation is currently funding renovation of the mens restroom.
The theater hosts a varied slate of entertainment. Beside the first-run films, there are free community movie nights. Or, sometimes silent films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s “Why Worry,” are accompanied by the grand Hope-Jones Wurlitzer organ. There is a Classic Series for adults, too. Films are thematically matched with cocktails. A showing of the “Singing in the Rain,” for example, will offer a Rainy Day Marley.
A concert series, called Sunday Afternoon Live, runs monthly from September through May. Folk, classic and pop music are regularly featured. For instance on April 23rd, Everything Fitz, a family band of fiddlers and open step dancers, will perform.
Then, there is an Encore Series featuring three annual events. On March 25th, the theater will be “transformed,” and hold the Raymond Round-up. Participants are encouraged to “polish your boots and shine your spurs!” A gala of entertainment and chili cook-off are planned.
Steel believes the theater is a valued part of the community. Its survival, she says, is critical for the small town’s morale. “If it were to close — in an area that is depressed — how depressing would that be?” she asked.
“People in their 40s to 60s — who remember and came here as kids — can’t shake that nostalgia….They won’t let that go.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.com.