Crews start demolishing Portland’s historic Roseway Theater

Crews operate heavy equipment and work together to demolish the former site of the Roseway Theater, as seen from the side of the building on Northeast 72nd Ave. in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 14, 2022. The historic theater was gutted by a fire.

Courtney Sherwood/OPB

Since 1924, movie lovers have filled the seats while munching on popcorn at the historic Roseway Theater at the corner of Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 72nd Avenue.

But in August of this year, an electrical fire destroyed the building.

Last week, crews began tearing down the iconic 330-seat theater that survived through the rise of movie megaplexes, device-based social media and online home streaming.

Roseway Theater owner Greg Wood said that demolition is expected to last at least six weeks.

Wood was on his way home with his daughter after visiting his mother in California when he heard the news about the fire.

“We literally are at LAX on an iPad watching the fire live on YouTube. When we get to Portland, when we get to the site, all the walls are still up,” said Wood.

The fire destroyed the Roseway’s roof, but some of the walls remained standing, so Wood still hoped that he could salvage the theatre.

A movie theater marquee juts above a sidewalk, while a chain link fence blocks the entryway and ticket window.

The front marquee of Roseway Theater in Portland, Ore., seen from Northeast Sandy Boulevard on Nov. 14, 2022. The theater has been closed since a fire caused devastating damage.

Courtney Sherwood/OPB

But then he saw the long list of estimated repairs.

“It would’ve been north of $4 million. We had insurance, but we were not covered for that amount.”

After consulting structural engineers and construction experts, Wood determined that he had few, if any, options.

“We have this really fragile terracotta brick and unfortunately we could not rebuild with the current walls. No matter what we were gonna do, we have to take the structure down and start over,” he says.

For Wood, the decision was especially heartbreaking because the Roseway Theater was about to celebrate something special.

“We were a year or two away from our hundred-year anniversary. It’s sad to lose that much history.”

A lifelong movie and theater lover, Wood grew up in Los Angeles attending single-screen theaters.

He moved to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark College and graduated in 1993.

Wood quickly realized his passion for movies could become a profession. So he set out to learn the business of running an independent movie house. He started in 1996 by leasing the Liberty Theater in Camas Washington, which he ran for nearly a decade.

In 2008, Wood bought the Roseway Theater from businessmen Jim Svoboda and Chuck Nakvasil.

Svoboda and Nakvasil previously owned and operated a slew of other independent theaters, including the Columbia Theater in St. Helens and the Cinemagic Theater in Southeast Portland.

“When I first looked at the Roseway, it was in bad shape,” Wood said. ”But I looked at the surrounding neighborhood and thought it needed to be preserved. Single screens are increasingly scarce so it felt good to keep the neighborhood theater spirit alive.”

After extensive renovations, he reopened the theater in the summer of 2008 with a screening of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” as the marquee movie.

“I remember our sound system was so good that some people had some anxiety attacks because the whole experience was just overwhelming to them. But it was kind of a fun experience.”

After purchasing the Roseway, Wood turned the theater into a caring member of the community — a real neighbor and friend.

“I ran a movie for a girl with leukemia who couldn’t be around anybody. So we had her come in and just watch a movie by herself with her parents,” said Wood. “We had people who came in who were in their eighties and remember being there when they were kids.”

But Wood knows better than most — not all films have happy endings.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood shut down the Roseway from March 2020 to November 2021.

Vandals also broke into the theater on more than one occasion, and trucks ran into the marquee multiple times.

But despite the challenges, Wood held out hope that the movie industry and the Roseway might eventually make a Rocky-style comeback.

“The sad irony is we had our liquor license application process about a month ago. We were going to have a small renovation centered around that and we were really excited for the upcoming movies Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar 2.”

Since the summer fire, many Northeast Portland residents offered to raise money to help save the theater, but Wood declined.

Still, he appreciates that there are so many local neighbors who love independent theaters as much as he does and stand at the ready to preserve a piece of movie history.

“It’s so rare to have a neighborhood theater and a neighborhood single screen and I think we played that role so well. It’s just heartbreaking to have it go away.”

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