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Holly Theatre prepares for its encore

The Holly Theatre's days of playing the faded beauty queen appear to be numbered. Work could begin as soon as next month on the first phase of the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation's restoration of the old theater in downtown Medford.

You sense Ron Kramer's excitement as he thumbs through a binder of old photos and details the 1930 theater's virtues to a couple of visitors.

"The front will be indistinguishable from 1930," he says. The later marquis will be torn off and the original re-created, he says. Brickwork and a false ceiling will be removed, and new tile made to match the original. The ticket booth, another add-on, won't be recreated.

Big "scoop lights" overhead will be refurbished or replaced. The distinctive "blade," or vertical sign, will be restored with red and white neon and white letters against a black background, and the 33-foot blade will be supported with chains, another original feature. The work on the sign is expected to take two months.

The theater was remodeled in 1966 and again in 1976, "But it's pretty original as theaters go," says Kramer, under whose leadership JPR acquired the old Cascade Theatre in Redding, Calif., in 1999, restored it and made it into a performing arts center that presents national acts.

Kramer says the goal is to have the work on the front finished by spring. That was made possible in part by a $100,000 grant from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency. That's about half the estimated cost for the work on the front. JPR needs to raise the other half and has raised about $15,000 so far.

The vogue of restoring old movie theaters really got going in the 1970s as soulless multiplexes spread and people realized the old palaces of their youth could disappear forever. Kramer says the nonprofit League of Historical American Theatres (www.lhat.org) has been a valuable resource with its focus on tools, techniques and technologies.

He estimates he's visited about 150 restored theaters, seeing both models to emulate and mistakes to avoid. Dinner theaters, for example, "tear the hell out of the original function." But he says the biggest mistake is to do a restoration without a business plan.

"You want to know how you're going to run it," he says.

He says the decade JPR has spent running the Cascade is an asset going forward. He sees the Holly as a venue not just for JPR's concerts but as a rental hall for other presenters and for various uses, from ballet to comcasts to political events. He says it will operate in the black, separate from JPR's broadcasting enterprise, just as the Cascade does.

The Holly almost didn't get built. Construction was to begin in the fall of 1929, but the stock market crashed in October, and plans went into limbo. The next spring the project got the green light.

"It's a roaring '20s theater," Kramer says. "Medford was the theater capital of Southern Oregon."

Step this way inside through the 1947 doors into a long, nonoriginal vestibule that's going to go away along with the 1947 concession stand. JPR will match the original carpeting, of which it has a sample.

Watch your step on the stairs to the second floor lounging area. The main concession could go in this area, as well as rental space for private functions. There's a true oddity here in the men's restroom — a two-faced urinal protruding from the wall that, if used by two men simultaneously, would have required them to stand face-to-face.

Rooms here could be rented to as many as a dozen different tenants. Theaters like this weren't designed to pencil out without rental income to supplement the box office.

The third floor has room for storage and four offices. JPR plans to add an elevator, which will enable the theater to meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements and make third-floor offices more practical.

On the fourth floor is the old projection booth, stage light controls, a dynamo and other movie gear of the day. This way to the "crying room," a retreat for mothers with fussy infants.

Built to hold 1,200 people, the Holly has no balcony. The seating area is raked steeply up in back so that there are no bad sight lines. It will seat 1,000 in its new incarnation ("People were skinnier back then," JPR's Paul Westhelle told me).

JPR will use restored seats from the 1960s, upholstered, powder-coated, metal-frame seats dressed up with vintage end standards like those in the Cascade. A false ceiling installed in 1966 will be removed to reveal the ornate original. Kramer says the original design concept was that of a Spanish villa at dusk, a theme testified to by decorative windows along the sides, clamshell windows and Doric columns.

"The theater was part of the show," he says. "It will be again."

The Holly's broken truss — the most famous beam in Southern Oregon until this summer, when it was upstaged by the fractured main beam of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre — failed where a huge bolt runs through it. Kramer says the rumors that repairs could cost millions are untrue, and the repair is easily doable.

The theater presented some vaudeville shows in the 1930s, and you can envision Broadway shows here. But Kramer says that's out. The nearby Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater hosts traveling Broadway shows, and critics of the Holly project have charged that a second performing arts center downtown could put both out of business by trying to divide a market that's not big enough.

There's an orchestra pit in front of the big (27-foot-deep, 40-foot-wide), proscenium stage, the face of which was blue with gold flecking. Old flats (moveable scenery panels) gather dust on the stage, and vintage movie posters lie here and there. There are dressing rooms in back.

Kramer estimates the whole project will take two or three years at a cost of $3.5 million.

"It's had a rough quarter-century," Kramer says. "But contrary to what a lot of people have thought, it's in pretty good shape."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.