© 2022 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
KSOR Header background image 1
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Charles McDaniels operates The Koop, a business located at the corner of Tenth and H Streets in Arcata, California.We gave JPR’s Humboldt County correspondent, Michael Joyce, a challenge. Go to one intersection in his hometown of Arcata, California -- and find a story on every corner. He picked the corner of Tenth and H streets.Not only did he find four fascinating stories -- he found businesses that illustrate some of the major questions affecting culture and commerce in the early 21st Century.Join Michael as he explores the personal stories and global issues he found on one small intersection in a northern California university town.

The Minor Theater Has Seen The Entire History Of Motion Pictures

David_Phillips_0.jpg
Michael Jouce/JPR
/

It’s a crisp, clear, December night in Arcata and locals are lined up to commemorate the centennial of the nation’s oldest surviving theater built for feature films -- The Minor.

Jeff Zeigler: "My mother’s, mother’s sisters were at the opening in 1914 and so as part of the family I came to fill one of the seats 100 years later."

Opening night in 1914 featured a silent film and later that week drama students  from Humboldt State Normal School staged a comedy.  Both nights were sell-outs and raised money for German-occupied Belgium. 

Tonight, almost exactly 100 years later there’s no film, but the same play is being read by actors from Humboldt State. Tonight the house is only about a third full,  the proceeds are going to help abused women, and the word "normal" apparently no longer describes HSU.

Co-owner David Phillips is showing me around below the stage.

David Phillips: "This hole was cut into the ceiling as a trap-door for Harry Houdini."

For much of its history The Minor served double-duty showing films and hosting live stage shows.  And it’s only been closed twice. First, during World War II, and again for most of the '60s before Phillips and five other HSU students leased it in 1971 and saved it from becoming a parking lot.

David Phillips: "This is one of the original projectors. When we opened, we opened with San Francisco. The lead character that Clark Gable played was ‘Blacky’. Second feature was Groucho Marx in ANight at the Opera.  So we named one of the projectors Groucho and the other one Blacky."

And there were other stars featured at the Minor, like Simplex the Cat, who throughout the '70s had a knack for showing up at show times and walking across the laps of moviegoers.

David Phillips: "The most notorious time was she strutted across the stage when Some Like it Hot was playing - tail stuck up in the air and just walked across.That was her debut moment at The Minor Theater. And her exit was that she passed away in the theater. We dug a little grave under the stage right there, buried here, and that’s where she is right now."

And dead and buried is exactly what many people think is the fate of independent cinemas like The Minor. On demand and subscription movie companies are having banner years. The Internet is constantly competing for our attention, and money. Last year was the lowest movie attendance the industry has seen in 20 years. 

I ask David Phillips if he thinks theaters like The Minor even have a chance.

David Phillips: "Independent theaters are stronger now than they have been in years and they’re growing. The number of films being made now is extraordinary an there’s more risks being taken." 

But the reality remains that many independent theaters are closing.  Either  they can’t afford converting to  expensive digital equipment or they can’t compete with nearby multiplex theaters.

David Phillips: "There’s a huge difference between mainstream theater owners and independent theater owners. There’s an enthusiasm, energy, and love of film in that goes with independent theater owners that is not replicated in the mainstream theater owners. But they have the money and the studio support behind them. And they outperform independent theaters."

In 2006, Phillips and his partner Michael Thomas  leased the Minor to Ashland-based Coming Attractions Theaters which has maintained a blend of mainstream and independent films. Gone are the midnight shows and the surfing matinees. 

But Phillips says what remains is something magical that hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years.

David Phillips: "If you watch Netflix on your cell phone, or even your 40-inch TV, that’s one thing. If you come to a theater like The Minor and share in a communal experience, it becomes and entirely different creature. You feed off of the responses of people that are adjacent to you in the theater …. It becomes this symbiotic kind of experience that you can only get in a movie theater."

And Phillips thinks that experience may be what keeps The Minor open for another 100 years.