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Ginger Rogers helped save 'The Crate'

In 1926, 14-year-old Virginia Katherine McMath Rogers wowed the Craterian audience. A new dance was all the rage, and impresario George A. Hunt booked the newly crowned champion of Texas’ statewide Charleston Contest as part of a lineup of vaudeville acts intended to draw crowds to the sparkling new theater and usher Medford into the Jazz Age.

On a four-month tour of the West, the dancing sensation from Fort Worth kicking up her heels was the star of “Ginger and the Redheads.” Although Rogers wasn’t the only person on the stage, the Medford Mail Tribune reporter reviewing the performance had eyes only for the young lady the world would soon know as Ginger Rogers.

He wrote in his April 21, 1926, story: “Miss Rogers is a winsome little miss with captivating mannerisms and a pair of feet that make the most intricate dances seem easy.”

Sixty-seven years later, Rogers was on the Craterian stage again — this time to save the aging movie house. In the midst of a decade-long fundraising campaign and restoration effort, Rogers’ appearance helped push the project to the finish line. Sadly, she died in 1995 at the age of 83, not living to see the Craterian restored to its former glory.

The original Craterian — nicknamed “The Crate” — was a phoenix rising from the ashes. A 1923 blaze that destroyed the Page Theater, Medford’s biggest entertainment venue, prompted two businessmen, J.H. Cooley and Porter Neff, to finance construction of a new theater on Central Avenue between Main and Ninth streets. They leased it to Hunt, a Midwesterner who had arrived in Medford in 1919.

Hunt built excitement for the new theater by sponsoring a contest to name it. More than 1,500 entries were submitted. Mrs. W.P. Brooks won the $25 first prize inspired by nearby Crater Lake and playing off “Criterion,” a popular theater name in the Roaring ’20s.

“Hunt’s Craterian” embellished a 29-foot sign outside the theater when it opened Oct. 20, 1924. Despite the extravagant $2.75 admission, a sell-out audience of nearly 1,200 attended the grand-opening gala.

Designed by architect Frank Clark, the two-story stucco building featured a Spanish-colonial exterior and provided seating for 1,187 people (in a town of just 6,000). Four storefronts in the Craterian building opened onto Central Avenue, and law offices filled the second floor.

Inside, the building reflected the opulence of the glitzy 1920s. Visitors entered through a tiled lobby and gasped at an interior inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Gold stencil work adorned the lobby, and vases of fresh flowers stood in the niches.

In the auditorium, the ceiling towered 50 feet above the stage.

Silent movies were the main attraction, but Hunt also presented live drama, as well as vaudeville acts accompanied by a full orchestra.

Talking pictures debuted in 1928, and Medford audiences were stunned to hear Al Jolson sing in “The Jazz Singer.”

Hunt was known for promotional stunts. When a Western called “The Pioneers” opened, he asked local pioneers to write their memories of the trek to Oregon, and at the premiere of “Just Imagine” in 1930, he encouraged folks to imagine what Medford would be like in 1980.

Hunt sold the theater to Fox West Coast Theater Co. in 1929, shortly before the stock market crash sent the country into the Great Depression. He returned in 1933 after the Fox chain filed for bankruptcy. To bolster the box office, he lowered the 50-cent price of admission to 15 cents.

After Hunt’s death in 1943, the theater changed hands several times. Ticket sales gradually declined as television and multiplex theaters drew audiences away from downtown theaters in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Craterian closed Aug. 24, 1984, two months short of its 60th birthday, and the building was donated to the Rogue Valley Art Association, with hopes of rebirth as a performing arts center.

In 1985, the Craterian was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as Medford’s first “Movie Palace.” Lindsay Berryman, who later became mayor of Medford, led the campaign to save the theater not only for its historical significance, but as part of an effort to revitalize Medford’s downtown.

Rogers headlined a benefit gala for the $5 million theater restoration effort in 1993.

The Academy Award-winning actress, Broadway star and dancing queen, who paired with Fred Astaire in 10 hugely successful musicals, had been an on-and-off resident of the Rogue Valley since 1940.

Rogers often took refuge from Hollywood on her 1,800-acre ranch on the banks of the Rogue River between Eagle Point and Shady Cove. Her Guernsey dairy cows supplied milk to the troops stationed at Camp White during World War II, and she had become a local legend with her prowess as a fly-fisher and hunter. She was a regular customer at Quality Market on Jackson Street and frequented the cosmetics counter at Woolworth’s.

When she sold the ranch in 1990, she bought a summer home in Medford, so it came as no surprise that Rogers stood in the footlights of the Craterian again.

At the benefit, she entertained a packed house with Hollywood stories and played her favorite film, “Roxie Hart.” Ironically, a dance sequence in the 1920s-era movie featuring Rogers doing the Charleston was cut.

Rogers’ appearance gave a $100,000 boost to the project, and her fame helped secure funds from the Fred Meyer Trust.

A completely restored Craterian opened March 1, 1997.

After Rogers’ death in 1995, theater patrons collected 3,300 signatures to persuade Medford City Council to rename the building the “Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.”

Rosebushes grown by Rogers grace neighboring Vogel Plaza, and with its inviting courtyard, shaded benches and art deco exterior, the Craterian has became the cultural cornerstone of Medford’s continuing downtown revitalization.

In 2012, the theater was renamed “the Craterian Theater at The Collier Center for the Performing Arts,” in gratitude to local philanthropist James Morrison Collier. The stage however is still called the Ginger Rogers Stage — an applause to the once-upon-a-time boop-oop-a-doop flapper who helped save “The Crate.”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Ginger Rogers headlined a benefit gala for the $5 million Craterian restoration effort in 1993. SOHS photo