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Holly Theatre has had its starts and stops

At a time when the world had plunged into the Great Depression and Jackson County was rocked by a wild political scandal, the Holly Theatre came to life.

Construction of the theater had barely started when Black Friday hit Oct. 29, 1929, marking a massive drop in the stock market and the start of an economic downturn that lasted more than a decade.

“I do think there was a pause and reevaluation,” said George Kramer, a local historian who has been working on the current remodel of the theater. “At the end of the day, they had faith in the community. They decided, to their credit, to go forward with this massive project.”

Eric Fehl, a local contractor and controversial political figure who got caught up in an infamous Jackson County rebellion, was the driving force behind the Holly, which was built for $300,000.

The rebellion, known as the Good Government Congress, was a rural populist effort that supported a dictatorship to bring the country out of the Great Depression, according to an article by Jeff LaLande in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of winter 1994-95.

Fehl and other local investors temporarily stopped work on the Holly over concerns about the Depression’s impact on the theater, but work resumed in March 1930, and the theater opened Aug. 29, 1930.

“The Holly was unusual in that it was totally funded locally,” Kramer said. “Fehl had this long-time dream of building a movie theater in Medford.”

Fehl thought big, creating what is still the largest theater in the region, originally featuring 1,200 seats. Financing for the project came from locals Walter Levrette and John and Louis Niedermeyer.

“It’s the biggest theater that has ever been built in Medford,” Kramer said.

The theater portion of the Holly closed in 1986, and in December 2002 a broken roof truss forced tenants in the front office areas to move out temporarily.

When it closed, the auditorium was largely gutted.

After Jefferson Public Radio bought the building, the renovation appeared to get off to a good start in 2011 and 2012, when a facade restoration was completed.

But a dispute between JPR and the Oregon University System intensified, leading to the 2012 ouster of former JPR executive director Ron Kramer, who had been with the station since 1974. George Kramer is Ron Kramer’s brother.

Originally, the cost for restoration was estimated at $4.3 million, but it has now swollen to more than $11 million.

Holly supporters are still shy of their fundraising target, so it’s difficult to say when the theater might actually reopen, though renovation of the front portion of the building has been completed.

Fehl, the man behind the Holly, was a colorful character who is known more for his involvement in the Good Government Congress, which was popular among working-class residents.

One of Fehl’s associates, Llewellyn Banks, wrote a column titled “Once in a While” for the Daily News, a competitor to the Mail Tribune at the time.

Banks blamed the region’s economic troubles on villains such as the Federal Reserve and the “corrupt courthouse gang,” according to an account by LaLande in “The Oregon Encyclopedia,” a project of the Oregon Historical Society.

Fehl joined Banks in denouncing what they perceived as the criminality of the “courthouse gang.” Fehl and won a local judge election as a Good Government Congress candidate in 1932.

Surrounded by a band of local toughies known as the Green Springs Mountain Boys, Fehl and Banks held a rally on the Jackson County Courthouse lawn to celebrate their electoral takeover, while complaints of irregularities in the ballot count from rural areas led to a state-ordered recount.

State officials discovered that ballots had been stolen from the courthouse vault, while other ballots were burned in the courthouse furnace. More ballots were discovered weighted down and tossed from a bridge into the Rogue River.

Banks, Fehl, the new sheriff and other Good Government Congress leaders were indicted for theft and conspiracy to commit criminal syndication. When Oregon State Police arrived at Banks’ Medford home to arrest him, he shot and killed a constable who tried to serve the warrant.

Fehl was sent to the state penitentiary for the theft, and Banks received a life sentence for murder.

The Mail Tribune’s editorials on the Jackson County Rebellion netted the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 1934.

The publisher at the time, Robert Ruhl, wrote Feb. 21, 1933, that he was in favor of “a government of, for and by the people” as opposed to a “government of, for and by one man in it — L.A. Banks!”

While Fehl will be forever remembered for his political downfall, he did leave behind the legacy of the Holly and pushed ahead with its construction despite the economic headwinds of the Great Depression.

“Fehl is not a particularly laudable character, but even people who do bad things sometimes do good things,” Kramer said. “The Holly was a good thing that he did.”

The theater thrived through the Depression and into World War II, but the rise of multiplexes in the 1980s ultimately led to its closure.

Jefferson Live!, a subsidiary of Jefferson Public Radio Foundation, plans to use the venue for musical acts.

Kramer, who has been involved in historic renovations around the state, said people are interested in the history behind old buildings.

“They like to believe a building’s either haunted, was a whorehouse or was a stage stop,” he said.

Many have suggested the Holly might be haunted, but if it is haunted, it’s likely the ghost of Eric Fehl.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Holly Theatre, shown here in 1948, was started in 1929. Southern Oregon Historical Society #4178